Many terrific tuners are neglected, but not all neglected tuners are terrific. “I’d Rather Be Right,” a Kaufman & Hart/Rodgers & Hart satirical revue from 1937, makes its Los Angeles premiere at the Hudson Mainstage 71 years late, which is to say, way too late. Director/choreographer William Mead, who brought such energy and charm to By George Productions’ 2007 take on the Gershwins’ “Tip-Toes,” this time lacks the wherewithal to rise above stale material and justify tuner’s redemption from the trunk, or in this instance, the crypt.
Boffo Gotham run was a personal triumph for legendary showman George M. Cohan, topbilled as a matchmaking President Roosevelt on a Central Park busman’s holiday. Since then, America has enjoyed a romantic ballad famously covered by Ella Fitzgerald, “Have You Met Miss Jones?,” and Jimmy Cagney’s three choruses of star turn “Off the Record” in his Cohan biopic “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” wartime lyrics jingoistically rewritten to twit the Axis Powers.
Otherwise, oblivion – reasons for which are easy to infer, over and above the dubious taste of a singing and dancing Chief Exec we now know to have been wheelchair bound.
Flimsy premise has financially-straitened youngsters Phil (Stephen Vendette) and Peggy (Christina Valo) begging FDR (Joe Joyce) to balance the budget so as to free up Phil’s promotion and their marriage. The real Roosevelt’s one attempt to abjure deficit spending (in that same year, 1937) almost threw the U.S. into recession, but “balanced budget” is musical-comedy shorthand for fiscal sanity.
Anyway, the lovers’ plight kicks off a series of revue sketches dramatizing plutocrat and bureaucrat misbehavior, with special scorn saved for the featherbedding and patronage in FDR’s own party. (Republicans will chuckle when financial crisis immediately sets the Dems looking for new taxes to levy.)
Unfortunately, nothing wears less well than yesterday’s topical satire. The mute incomprehension with which today’s audience receives jokes about the Supreme Court packing scheme, or barbs at Sen. Borah and radio comics Stoopnagle and Budd, readily explains why tuner’s shelf life ran out by V-E Day.
Musically, “I’d Rather” would rather be garrulous than melodic, its dull dialogue stretches too infrequently interrupted by (mostly mediocre) songs. It beggars belief that “Labor Is the Thing,” the anthem of millionaires on the government payroll, and the Nine Old Men’s tribute to sexual harassment “Constitutional Fun” come from the talents behind “Pal Joey.”
Old pro Joyce, resembling Woodrow Wilson more than FDR, gets assured laughs, and Valo has a nice way with her ballad “Ev’rybody Loves You.” But only pristine comic technique could rescue an elaborately nellie spoof of the Federal Theater Project called “Spring in Vienna” – or “Take and Take and Take,” in which America’s women sing they’d rather send their sons to battle than give up cosmetics – and this company is longer on earnestness than on skill.
At any rate, Mead could take a cue or two from mentor Gower Champion’s ability to coax musical comedy pizzazz out of a substandard libretto. Cast seems ever on the verge of dancing but wastes opportunities galore, notably the dance break in “Miss Jones” filled by a round of silent chat and handshakes (with thesps’ backs to us, yet).
In two shows to date, the By George contingent has proven its mastery of the box step and shuffle-ball-change. Now, by George, isn’t it time to bring out the tap shoes, and cast kids who know how to use ’em?