Clinton the Musical, the newest Off-Broadway show to open at New World Stages, couldn’t have premiered at a better time. The opening weekend of the show conveniently happened to coincide with the announcement of the real Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Democratic Presidential Candidacy. It seems only fitting, then, that Clinton the Musical (book by Paul & Michael Hodge; music and lyrics by Paul Hodge) should transport the audience to a not-so-distant future where Mrs. Clinton has already won the 2016 Presidential bid.
After a brief stint in the future, the show jumps back in time to the 1992 evening of Bill Clinton’s election. As the First Lady, Broadway veteran Kerry Butler is bold with her characterization, using vocal variation and employing highly stylized physical choices to bring Hillary to life. Still grandiose at best, Butler brings just enough warmth and heart to the character to ground the few fleeting dramatic moments. Early on the music is quite simply that of a musical comedy, but the writers manage to incorporate signature moments to showcase Butler’s true vocal abilities, in none more so than “Both Ways,” a power ballad performed by Butler with familiar command and ease.
The show, being based in a genre residing somewhere between satire and farce, employs simple theatrical techniques to suspend the audiences disbelief, such as casting two actors to play split personalities of the same character. This device is employed to dissect the polarizing husband of the protagonist, former President Bill Clinton. The first of the two roles is President William Jefferson “WJ” Clinton, played by Tom Galantich. WJ is the Southern, polite, loyal husband, while his counterpart “Billy,” (Duke Lafoon) cares only about women and his saxophone. Both Galantich and Lafoon are solid in their respective roles; however, considering the characteristics of the character have been cut in half, the amount of character development is limited. WJ is more often than not waxing poetic about being an honest politician, or trying to prove himself a good husband while fending off the slippery and reckless Billy.
While the President and his Wife act as namesake to the production, it wouldn’t be theater without conflict. Forever burdened with the agenda of thwarting any and all Democratic efforts, Kenneth Star (Kevin Zak) and Newt Gingrich (John Treacy Egan) of the Republican Party are delightful as the antagonists. Employing a “Pinky and the Brain” style of villainy, Zak and Egan have excellent stage chemistry and present some of the best and most stylized comedy of the evening. Zak is also a true vocal force, bringing down the house with “A Starr is Born,” a hilarious, dark and sultry song which pits the ironies of conservative beliefs against the hidden lifestyles of the Party’s biggest supporters.
As the show navigates the scandals of the Clinton Administration, the ensemble rounds out the cast of other political figures who are brought to life. Judy Gold plays Eleanor Roosevelt, who makes multiple appearances to hand out her—sometimes misguided—advice to a well-intentioned Hillary. Veronica J. Kuehn takes on the inevitable role of Monica Lewinsky, and in the self-titled “Monica’s Song,” coins a key phrase which—thanks to repetition—will have the audience humming the tune all the way out of the theatre. The ensemble numbers are full of energy and gut busting puns, and the choreography by director Dan Knechtges is minimalist in the best meaning of the term.
David C. Woolard’s wardrobe choices for the show are fun, tacky, and reminiscent of the ‘90’s which should be considered an achievement in this case. It is also worth noting that nary a time is Hilary seen in anything but her famed pants suit (the script draws attention to this as well).
In regards to the set (design by Beowulf Borrit), less is more in this case: a large cut out of the White House covers the entire stage, with a single revolving entrance in the center which is both the Oval Office and the lair of the Republican connivers. Making something out of nothing, the walls of the White House are covered in portraits of previous Presidents and their wives. Employing classic lighting tricks (designed by Paul Miller), the ensemble members are backlit behind these portraits to evoke a quality characteristic of a soliloquy.
As staged by Knechtges, Clinton the Musical can be taken at face value. Stylized and seamless, the show runs just over an hour and a half with no intermission, and it flies. As expected from a political satire, the show is chock full of Washington references from the past twenty years to varying effect, including a very timely reference to Hilary sending an email which made its way into the final script. When all is said and done, some of these inclusions are more obvious than others, but what Clinton lacks in subtlety it makes up for in sheer fun.
Clinton the Musical (through June 21, 2015)
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission