New York’s Encore! series resurrected “Chicago” two years ago, and sent the 1975 Kander & Ebb musical back to Broadway where it belongs (and is still running). If there’s any justice in the musical-comedy world, L.A.’s Reprise! series should do exactly the same with George and Ira Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing.” Director Arthur Allan Seidelman and choreographer Rob Barron have taken what was supposed to be an antique and made this 1931 show shine like new. As with the “Chicago” team, they know that when you’ve got the goods — a great score and book — there’s no need for two-ton puppets and hydraulic pumps onstage. Minimalism is magnificent.
Good or bad, “Of Thee I Sing” productions are rare creations, indeed. Variety last reviewed this musical in 1969, in an Off Broadway staging that led the critic to call the book, by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, “absolutely ludicrous.” (What a difference three decades make).
U.S. President John P. Wintergreen (Gregory Harrison) is about to be impeached due to a scandal involving a Southern belle, Diana Devereaux (Heather Lee). He survives, however, thanks to a loyal wife (Maureen McGovern), who sings as well as stands by her man. In fact, she goes beyond the 1998 line of first-lady duty and gets pregnant, because “an expectant president cannot be impeached.”
At heart, “Of Thee I Sing” is a kinder, gentler “Wag the Dog.” Instead of war, it’s a declaration of love that saves the president. Fortunately, just when things begin to feel a little gooey, sentimentality comes in for a quick thrashing: The pregnancy, as it turns out, is very much planned — as an image-saving ploy.
Seidelman and company never wink at this material as if they’re polishing off some relic for our camp derision. This is classic stuff, and the Gershwin score includes such vintage tunes as “Who Cares?,” “Love Is Sweeping the Country” and the title song, which are fully integrated into the book.
The Reprise! production shows “Of Thee I Sing” to such good advantage that one only need look at the song “Of Thee I Sing (Baby),” a sly parody of our national anthem, and compare it to all those Kate Smith orchestrations in “Ragtime” to see how far we have not come with regard to musical sophistication in the American theater. No surprise: Four years after this musical, the Gershwins went on to write their masterpiece, “Porgy and Bess.”
President and first lady Wintergreen are no Porgy and Bess, but Harrison and McGovern bring this couple a dimension that even Kaufman and Ryskind probably never envisioned. To borrow what Katharine Hepburn once said about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Harrison gives her sex and McGovern gives him class. McGovern displays this great open, generous face that all beloved public wives must possess. There’s a bit of the first-lady frump about her performance that she somehow makes utterly beguiling. No small feat.
Vocally, she walks the tightrope between parody and genuine emotion in her operetta approach to the score. We get the joke and yet are moved by her protestations of devotion.
In the best Broadway tradition, “Of Thee I Sing” depends as much, if not more, on its supporting characters. Kaufman and Ryskind created enough for half a dozen musicals, and the way this cast tears into them, it’s surprising there’s any oxygen left in the theater.
Charlie Dell’s cipher vice president is the running joke that never runs out of steam. Lee’s bimbo evokes fond memories of Lesley Ann Warren in “Victor/Victoria.” And the always inventive Jason Graae brings lowbrow Broadway gusto to his Gilbert & Sullivan turn as the French Ambassador who tries to bring down the government.
The real star is director Seidelman, who keeps the enterprise energized with a mighty small chorus, each of whom seems ready for center stage.
A major plus, too, is the choreography of Barron, who at one point turns six bathing beauties into a Busby Berkeley spectacle. Garland Riddle’s costumes and Gary Wissmann’s false-proscenium set with red, white and blue bunting are witty, understated and just what George Gershwin would have ordered to celebrate his 100th birthday this year.