Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 6, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review ‘Of Thee I Sing’

The Paper Mill Playhouse is presenting a terrific revival of "Of Thee

I Sing." In honor of the occasion, here is short recap of the social,

political, and economic events surrounding three U.S. presidencies

that undoubtedly inspired the writing of this winner of the 1931

Pulitzer Prize.

Washington politics went from bad to worse following President Woodrow

Wilson’s turbulent term. It wasn’t bad enough that Republican

President Warren G. Harding (1921 to 1923) gambled away the White

House during a card game, that he supported tax cuts for the rich,

opposed organized labor, stopped anti-trust suits, and used the

Fordney-McCumber Tariff to secure oil markets in the Middle East. But

the thing that perhaps made his presidency most notorious were his two

extramarital affairs. One was with Carrie Phillips, a known German

sympathizer during the war, who tried to blackmail Harding and was

instead paid hush money by the Republican Party.

The other affair was with a 30-years-younger blonde, who was given a

job in D.C. so she could be near the Oval Office, where she and

Harding often met throughout his term. But most sensational of all was

the rumor that Harding’s death from ptomaine (food) poisoning was

actually the work of his wife Florence (Flossie), who was trying to

save him from the accusations of corruption that had consumed his

administration. Harding is widely considered the worst president in

the nation’s history.

Audiences at "Of Thee I Sing" might be amused to know how closely the

character of the vice-president is derived directly from the

personality of Calvin Coolidge, the next Republican president of the

U.S. (1923 to 1929). Coolidge, who, when previously serving as

Harding’s vice-president, kept to himself, sat without contributing to

cabinet meetings and was seldom given to speaking. When Coolidge

became president, Americans were advised to “keep cool” with a more

aggressive Coolidge, as he blithely fueled the speculation behind the

stock market crash of 1929, supported economic imperialism, and put

200 corporations in control of the nation’s wealth.

Let’s just say that Herbert Hoover, the next Republican president

(1929 to 1933), did his best during the Great Depression to “put a

chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage.” He did this by

denying relief to the millions of unemployed and hungry.

And now on with the show: Master playwright and wit George S. Kaufman

and collaborator Morrie Ryskand joined forces with George and Ira

Gershwin to satirically skew the seemingly on-going and indefensible

policies, ethics, and platforms of the U.S. government. What a

delicious thought was theirs to create a politically-motivated musical

comedy. Considering that it was written in 1931 when the U.S. was

crippled by the biggest economic crises in its history, "Of Thee I

Sing" is still amazingly topical.

The play deals with a good-looking but bland not-very-bright candidate

hand-picked as presidential material and purposefully manipulated by

hard-line politicos, a Supreme Court that is forced to rule on an

issue outside its jurisdiction, and a “love” (instead of war) campaign

(“Love is Sweeping the Country”) launched to divert the people from

the real issues.

Although the style of the show is antiquated, the broad, almost Marx

Brothers physicality of the action gets plenty of assist from the

exuberant dancing, the witty lyrics, and the delightfully robust

score, including “Wintergreen for President.” This production, under

the direction of Tina Landau, is a winner. It deserves to get

everyone’s vote. Landau, a writer-director and ensemble member of

Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, brings a fresh vitality to an old show

that cleverly exposes the guile of the campaign spinmeisters, as well

as the gullibility of the voters. (“We want to appeal to your hearts,

not your intelligence.”)

When the Presidential nominee, John P. Wintergreen (Ron Bohmer),

marries a White House secretary, Mary Turner (Garrett Long), because

she bakes the best corn, he wins the votes and hearts of the people on

his platform of love. He then discovers that his previous and

well-publicized commitment to marry the winner of a beauty contest is

taken seriously by contest winner, Diana Devereaux (played for all its

over-the-top Southern charm by Sarah Knowlton). Her demand for justice

generates a public outcry for impeachment. The show’s satiric flavor

is at its zestiest when the nine Supreme Court justices — in a

hilarious sight gag that includes four robed men, each with a

cardboard dummy at his side — plus the Chief Justice, rule that corn

cakes are more important than justice. The show ends with Wintergreen

free of charges and celebrating his impending fatherhood (even Mary’s

pregnancy is politically motivated), giving added dimension to the

song “Of Thee I Sing…Baby.”

Although the approach that Landau and company take is appropriately

comical, antic, and at times farcical, they must be commended for not

smirking or winking at the satiric material, but rather for playing it

winningly for all its trumped up silliness. The comely Bohmer is a

splendid singer and plays the easy to manipulate Wintergreen with a

wonderfully reckless panache that pays more than a little homage to

Groucho. Notwithstanding her lovely voice, shown to advantage in the

sparkling duet “Who Cares?,” Long’s performance as the easy-to-love

Mary is also filled with the conspiratorial nuances and necessities of

her role as first lady.

There is no better way to praise Joey Pizzi’s leggy chorus

girl-enhanced choreography than to say he’s watched a lot of 1930s

musicals and that he gave the genre an added punch. Walt Spangler’s

whimsically moderne scenic designs and James Shuette’s period perfect

costumes contribute to make this perfect entertainment during this

election year.

–Simon Saltzman

Of Thee I Sing, through Sunday, October 17, Paper Mill

Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. For tickets ($31 to $68) call

973-376-4343.


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