The St. Jean's Players have a good reputation for putting on solid, though frugal, versions of Broadway classics. Unfortunately, their latest production, George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and George and Ira Gershwin's Pulitzer Prize winning musical Of Thee I Sing, does little to increase it. There are times when the potential shines through, but most of the production is hampered by technical glitches, timing problems, and generally sloppy direction.
Kaufman and Ryskind's play has a fairly simple, though wildly outlandish story. John P. Wintergreen (James Lane) is the last, best hope for his party in the upcoming presidential election. A bit of a wastrel, and unmarried to boot, the party bigwigs decide to run him on the "love ticket," telling the world that if elected, he will marry the winner of a nationwide beauty contest (like an eerily prescient version of ‘The Bachelor’). When the winner, the sexy Diana Devereaux (Kelly Campbell) of Louisiana, is announced Wintergreen confesses that he has just fallen in love with Mary Turner (Megan Petersen), a simple secretary working for the party, who happens to make the best corn muffins in the world. While America falls in love with John and Mary and sweeps them into the White House, Diana plots her revenge as only a woman scorned can. What follows is an inaugural wedding, saber-rattling by the French ambassador (Diana, as it turns out, is the "illegitimate daughter of the illegitimate son of the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon"), an impeachment, and of course, a happy ending. Along the way, there are plenty of jokes at the expense of Congress, the Vice President, and the press . . . think of it as a 1930's version of 'The Daily Show.'
Of Thee I Sing is a classic 1930's comedy. Puns, jokes, one-liners, topical references, and the occasional double entendre come flying by at a mile-a-minute. At least, that's how it should be. The actors in this production, though otherwise capable, are simply not up to the rapid-fire delivery that's needed. Certain actors do well with the style, however. Peterson and Campbell in particular acquit themselves nicely. Unfortunately, their work is offset by actors who are slow to pick up their cues, stage business that slows the scenes down, and choreography that seems under-rehearsed. With a firmer hand by director Bryan McHaffey, or possibly more rehearsal time, this production would have been stronger.
Where the cast of Of Thee I Sing shines is in their singing. The Gershwins wrote some marvelous music for this show, and cast makes the most of it. Though at times they have to fight to make themselves heard with the atrocious acoustics in the cavernous space, and there are several occasions when the musicians and the actors aren't in sync, particularly during their full ensemble entrances, they are gifted with some voices that make the songs a delight. Of particular note are Lane and Peterson, both of whom have strong, clear voices, and Campbell, who clearly has had opera training and uses it to great effect. With an excellent voice and a good stage presence, one of the younger members of the cast, Michael Jones, should be added to the list of actors to watch out for.
While most of the technical aspects of the show were good, though unremarkable, Diane Piro's costumes for the vampish Diana Devereaux were excellent. As Diana played up her Napoleonic roots, her costume became more and more French. With Diana's costume, and those of the French ambassador and one of the western senators, Piro showed a real sense of humor and style.
While not a particularly strong production, Of Thee I Sing is a rarely produced classic. Although some of the jokes are a little musty and the topical humor may breeze over a 21st century audience's heads, it's worth attending just to hear some of Kaufman and Ryskind's banter, and Ira and George Gershwin's songs.
(Of Thee I Sing also features Lucy Apicello, Alex Arruda, Joann Breslin, Sonia Brozak, Jennifer Dickson, Elizabeth Eiel, Jay Fink, Mary Glasser, Melanie Gretchen, Arthur Gruen, Kathleen Harrington, Henry Hicks, Edward Knauer, DeVette Pia Lo Verde, David Mackler, Marah Meese, Linda Meris, Doug O'Connor, Pamela Robins, John Short, Carrie Lynette Stringfellow, and musicians Razy Jordan, Alicia Rau, and Linda Blacken)
Copyright 2007 by Byrne Harrison
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