By Brian Scott Lipton
With its now-prescient take on presidential politics, including plotlines involving beauty pageants, foreign collusion and impeachment – it’s almost shocking no one has revived the 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Of Thee I Sing” this season. So one is absolutely grateful to MasterVoices, which opened its 76th season with a pleasant one-night-only production of this still-timely show at Carnegie Hall.
Although it was presented with a much-shortened book by Tommy Krasker, little was lost in making the many satiric points of George S. Kaufman and Morrie Riskind’s smart-yet-silly book. The piece revolves around novice politician John P. Wintergreen (a truly wonderful Bryce Pinkham, evoking a young Kennedy) who engineers his own election, but causes a scandal of sorts by refusing to marry spirited beauty contest winner Diana Devereaux (Elizabeth Stanley in fine form) — as had been agreed to –in favor of down-to-earth Mary Turner (a radiant Denee Benton), whose prime virtue appears to be her peerless ability to make corn muffins.
However, Carnegie Hall’s acoustics weren’t always as kind to George and Ira Gershwin’s score, which is most notable for the wonderful title tune, the ultra-catchy “Who Cares?” and the grand “Love is Sweeping the Country.” Sometimes, the vocalists seemed drowned out by the excellent MasterVoices Orchestra (conducted by Ted Sperling, who also directed the show), and the large Master Voices chorus, while sounding lovely, didn’t always enunciate the show’s lyrics as well as one would have hoped.
Fortunately, much of the show’s comedy still came through, thanks primarily to David Pittu in a slightly over-the-top turn as the French ambassador, who takes up Diana’s cause when he discovers she’s an illegitimate relative to Napoleon, and the delicious Kevin Chamberlin as Wintergreen’s downtrodden vice president Alexander Throttlebottom, who doesn’t even know where the Senate chambers are – never mind that he’s supposed to preside over it. Meanwhile, the presences of Chuck Cooper, Brad Oscar and Fred Applegate are always welcome on any stage, but this trio’s talents were extremely underused in the throwaway roles of newspaper publisher Matthew Fulton and veteran politicians Louis Lippman and Francis X. Gilhooley.
For me, however, the best part of the evening was the clever, informative narration by Joe Keenan (superbly delivered by “CBS Sunday Morning” commentator Mo Rocca), which filled in some of the book’s gaps and provided some wonderful historical information about the show’s creation and reception, as well as providing context for both the 1930s and 2010s. As he wisely, if sadly, pointed out, wasn’t it nice to live in a time when “Who Cares?” was just a popular showtune and not presidential policy?
Photos: Eric Baiano