Where was “Of Thee I Sing” when we needed it two years ago, during the descending gloom of election year? The Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey mounted a well-received 2004 production, but the 1931 show has been too long absent from New York stages. Better late than never — or perhaps early for 2008 — the first Broadway musical ever to win the Pulitzer returns in a spirited Encores! revival, which proves that 75 years ago, the White House administration was as much a target for satire as it is today. The big difference is that back then, it was being done with more affection than outrage.
The durable humor of George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind’s book, the sparkling melodies of George Gershwin and the witty quipster lyrics of his brother Ira make this good-natured trivialization of the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court far more roadworthy today than most of the effervescent but ephemeral tuners of the 1930s. That makes it a terrific vehicle for an Encores! overhaul, redeeming the series after a lackluster season that began with the dusty baubles, bangles and beads of “Kismet” and continued with an arthritic “70, Girls, 70” that should have stayed in the hospice.
From the first moment music director Paul Gemignani waves his baton and the orchestra strikes up one of Gershwin’s most glorious overtures, it’s clear there’s a welcome light touch at work here. Director John Rando is on rewarding turf, confidently mining a vein closer to the cheeky satirical flavor and situation comedy of “Urinetown” than to the gimmicky visual gags of his more recent “The Wedding Singer.” He has backup from a delightful cast.
Taking a hiatus from TV work to make a welcome return to the New York stage, Victor Garber plays John P. Wintergreen, the National Party presidential candidate decidedly higher on charm than substance. Looking for a campaign platform to grab the popular imagination (“Something that everybody is interested in, and that doesn’t matter a damn. Something the party can stand on.”), the committee settles on a LOVE ticket. Thus is hatched a national beauty contest to find Wintergreen a suitable first lady and make him the romantic ideal of the nation.
Not-so-demure Southern belle Diana Devereaux (Jenny Powers) wins the competition, but Wintergreen’s taste runs to more simple, homespun girls, pointing him to campaign worker Mary Turner (Jennifer Laura Thompson). “Listen, I’ve only got a minute. I love you,” says the prez-to-be. He extols Mary’s virtues and the excellence of her corn muffins in “Some Girls Can Bake a Pie.”
With elegant choreography by Randy Skinner that summons vintage MGM musicals (there’s also a healthy dose of tap elsewhere), romantic fever catches on in “Love Is Sweeping the Country.” Rando recaps Wintergreen’s meteoric politic rise and landslide victory in a B&W newsreel seg with jokes equal parts inspired and hoary, then amusingly folds John and Mary’s wedding and his presidential inauguration into a single ceremony.
But Diana is unhappy about being passed over, setting in motion a lawsuit. The scandal spirals into an international diplomatic incident when the French ambassador (David Pittu) adopts Ms. Devereaux’s cause, claiming in a song, “She’s the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon.”
Trouble escalates for the freshly installed commander in chief when Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom (Jefferson Mays), a Dan Quayle prototype so ineffectual no one can remember who he is, goes eagerly along with the Senate’s plans to impeach Wintergreen. The announcement of a baby on the way in the White House saves the day.
This is a book-heavy show that becomes a little belabored between songs in the second act. But Rando and his cast keep the broad characterizations appealing; the wryly self-aware digs at government, while clearly belonging to a more unquestioningly patriotic age, are funny and more often on the mark than off.
Likewise, the show’s ribbing of the saintly American homemaker and mother yields laughs. Rando and David Ives, who regularly tailors musical books for Encores! treatment, can also be commended for not leaning too hard on the featherweight comedy’s parallels with the current administration.
Looking distinctly Clintonesque, Garber’s smooth tenor is in good shape, and he’s obviously enjoying himself onstage, his character oozing ingratiating warmth, vanity, skin-deep sincerity and minimal intellectual heft. This is a show that wins by not taking itself too seriously, and Garber’s well-honed musical theater chops allow him an effortless grasp of both the comedy and songs.
Part Kristen Chenoweth, part Madeleine Kahn, Thompson (“Urinetown”) brings a crisp soprano and a quietly daffy screwball quality, while in his first musical role, “I Am My Own Wife” Tony winner Mays is hilariously prissy as the joke VP who forever defined that job as an invisible afterthought. Mays’ “Senatorial Roll Call” number is a hoot; after listing the reps from a handful of states, he sings, “The senators from other states will have to bide their time/For I simply can’t be bothered when the names don’t rhyme.”
Following his fine work this season in “Stuff Happens” and Pinter’s “Celebration,” Pittu shows further resourcefulness with a delectably ludicrous caricature of mincing French hauteur. Only the scheming Diana could perhaps have benefited from a bigger, vampier comic personality, but Powers handles vocal chores well.
On a stage shared with a full orchestra, set trappings usually are minimal, but designer John Lee Beatty here conjures the atmosphere of the campaign trail with bunting, flags and slogan-bearing banners, adding touches of pomp and institutional splendor to designate various White House and Capitol Hill spaces.
Remarkably, considering the radically changed political climate, the show’s humor still lands three quarters of a century later. But it’s the freshness of the Gershwins’ song score — with its robust choral work, its clever, Gilbert & Sullivan-style use of recitative and lovely numbers like the title tune and “Who Cares?” — that remains the principal attraction in this melodious nostalgia trip to the era of the fun-first musical.