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Of Thee I Sing (MasterVoices)

The Gershwins’ 1931 Pulitzer Prize winning musical satire proves to be both relevant and delightful all over again in the current political climate.

Bryce Pinkham as John P. Wintergreen and Denée Benton as Mary Turner with conductor/director Ted Sperling and MasterVoices Orchestra and Chorus in a scene from “Of Thee I Sing” (Photo credit: Erin Baiano)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Fake news, allegations of sexual misconduct, foreign meddling in an American presidential election and a president in jeopardy of impeachment in a new musical? No, actually this was a delightful all-star one night concert version of the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, the 1931 Of Thee I Sing, given by MasterVoices at Carnegie Hall, under the direction of Ted Sperling.

Leave it to George S. Kaufman and collaborator Morrie Ryskind (the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera as well as the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band), lyricist Ira and composer George to come up with the first all satirical political musical and be prophetic as well. Led by Tony Award nominees Bryce Pinkham, Denée Benton, Kevin Chamberlin, Brad Oscar and Tony winner Chuck Cooper, this concert adaptation proves that there is still life in the 86-year-old musical.

One of George Gershwin’s most sophisticated scores, the parody extends to the music which includes quotations from “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Tammany” and “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.” Gershwin even borrows from himself with a bar from “An American in Paris” at the entrance of the bodyguard for the French Ambassador. Perfect for a concert production, the score includes solos and duets, choruses, choral commentary, two competing choruses in counterpoint inspired by Mozart’s Don Giovanni, recitatives, and musical scenes reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Ira Gershwin’s lyrics include English, French and a not-so-hidden comic line in Yiddish. Leave it to him to rhyme “lucky girl to be” with “bourgeoisie,” “turkey stuffin’s” with “corn muffins,” “passion’ll” and “national,” “Oh, dinga donga dell” with “what a happy story they will tell,” and “Garcon, s’il vous plait” with “encore Chevrolet coupé.” Possibly his most outrageous lyric (written for the Vice President) states: “The senators from other states will have to bide their time, For I simply can’t be bothered when the names don’t rhyme.”

Elizabeth Stanley as Diana Devereaux with conductor/director Ted Sperling and MasterVoices Orchestra and Chorus in a scene from “Of Thee I Sing” (Photo credit: Erin Baiano)

The MasterVoices’ presentation was offered in a concert adaptation by famed music producer Tommy Krasker which eliminated many of the book scenes but kept almost all of the music, and a narration written by Emmy Award, Kleban and Thurber Prize Winner Joe Keenan which threaded all the songs together. This was delivered with dry wit by CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Mo Rocca.

Of Thee I Sing tells the story of presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen who running on a platform of putting Love in the White House promises to marry the winner of a Beauty Contest in Atlantic City. Although French descendent Diana Devereaux wins, Wintergreen has already promised to marry Mary Turner, the assistant to the pageant producer, who can make the world’s best corn muffins – without even using corn.

After promising to marry Mary in all 48 states, Wintergreen wins the election only to have Diana bring charges of sexual misconduct after she has been jilted. The case goes to the Senate which institutes impeachment hearings. Nature however takes its course and solves everything. A subplot includes the vice presidential candidate Alexander Throttlebottom whom no one has any time for until he finds his own voice.

The show was stolen by Diana Devereaux portrayed by Elizabeth Stanley who has previously impressed in the revivals of Company, On the Town, Merrily We Roll Along and Hello Again. As the Southern belle who discovers her French roots, Stanley wowed with big voiced versions of such songs as “The Dimple on My Knee,” “Because, Because, Because,” “I Was the Most Beautiful Flower” and “Jilted,” several of which are reprised so often that they become a running joke. Bryce Pinkham and Denée Benton were charming as John and Mary who become the all American couple and get to sing “Some Girls Can Bake a Pie,” “Who Cares? and the rousing title song.

Finale of “Of Thee I Sing” with complete cast, conductor/director Ted Sperling and MasterVoices Orchestra and Chorus (Photo credit: Erin Baiano)

As the comic characters, Kevin Chamberlin as the sad-sack vice presidential candidate who no one recognizes and David
Pittu as the French Ambassador who gets to sing “The Illegitimate Daughter (of an illegitimate son of a nephew of Napoleon”) were most amusing. Chuck Cooper, Brad Oscar and Fred Applegate as political hacks registered all of their jokes. MasterVoices even went to the trouble of obtaining the services of Richard J. Miller, Jr., Esq., an actual lawyer and operetta performer, who brought his authority to the role of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and who officiated at the inauguration and marriage of John and Mary. They even went so far as to dress eight other singers from the chorus in black robes to play the other members of the court.

Maestro Ted Sperling conducted the glorious 35 piece orchestra in the syncopated Gershwin melodies. He was credited with the direction of the book scenes while Andrew Palermo did the musical staging which even included a ballroom dance for John and Mary. While the chorus was excellent musically, at times the words were swallowed up, whether by the orchestra, Patrick Pummill’s sound design or poor diction is difficult to say. The uncredited costumes were attractive as well as suitable for the story line.

While the satire in Kaufman and Ryskind’s book for Of Thee I Sing may seem tame by today’s standards, in Krasker’s adaptation all of the jokes still landed. The varied Gershwin score is still a pleasure to listen to. With its all-star cast, MasterVoices with its 139 voices made this concert version of the first Pulitzer Prize winning musical a total delight.

Of Thee I Sing (November 2, 2017)

MasterVoices

Carnegie Hall

Isaac Stern Auditorium, Ronald O. Perelman Stage, 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets call, Carnegie Charge at 212-247-7800 or visit http://www.MasterVoices.org

Running time: two hours including one intermission

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (427 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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