Barbican Cinema 1, Sunday 25th August 1996
If you are one of those people who wishes to see old Musicals performed exactly as written, with the original interpretations of the characters preserved, then I would not recommend this production, you would be better off seeing Opera North’s staider production (mounted a few years later). If however, like me, you like seeing old musicals brought back to life, by being performed with the original scripts but with new actors giving their own interpretations of them, then this was a highly amusing and very enjoyable show.
Of Thee I Sing, book by George S Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, is basically about a Presidential candidate John P Wintergreen’s efforts to get elected as president of the United States, and the chaos that ensures. It is a show that remains topical one way or another, because US presidential elections have a tendency to be a bit like this rather weird show.
The show opens at a Campaign parade, with the chorus singing Wintergreen’s campaign song, Wintergreen For President. The action then shifts to a Hotel Bedroom, here we meet some of Wintergreen’s campaign team, namely Louis Lippman, Francis X Gilhooley, Matthew Arnold Fulton, Senator Robert E Lyons and Senator Carver Jones, played by Simon Roberts, Harry Landis, Philip O’Brien and James Bree respectively. Of particular note is Unity Theatre veteran Harry Landis, who had some admirable opportunities to shine with his experience accumulated over many years - he was performing on the stage before some of the Lost Musicals regulars were even born or thought of! In this scene we also meet two of our supposed leads, Alexander Throttlebottem, who is running for the un-memorable role of Vice President, and played in this production un-memorably by, what was his name? Peter Jones, and our leading man, John P Wintergreen, played by good old reliable Henry Goodman. The presidential campaign is in difficulties; they need a platform, a ticket on which to be elected. Someone has a bright idea, what about “Love” ? Wintergreen is a bachelor, so how about having him court a girl to become the First Lady? Wintergreen protests that he doesn’t know any girls, so someone has another bright idea, how about having a beauty contest to find “The most beautiful girl in America” and have Wintergreen marry her? Wintergreen goes along with this idea; after all it should get him elected as president, on a tidal wave of love.
The next scene takes place on a Boardwalk in Atlantic city, here we meet the finalists for the Beauty contest, who are lined up to be photographed. In this production only four or five girls were actually lined up, and most of them did not look all that convincing as beauty constants, I do not know if it was their costumes or what, but most of them did not appear good-looking enough to be beauty contest finalists. Louise Gold in the role of Diana Devereaux, is the only actress among them who is actually enough of a beauty to be convincing. The girls performed the song Who Is The Lucky Girl To Be, followed by The Dimple On My Knee. I think these were supposed to be ensemble numbers for the girls, but as usual when Louise Gold is involved with an ensemble number, her strong voice distinctly dominated it.
Just before the Contest takes place, Wintergreen is feeling hungry. The Campaign secretary, Mary Turner, played by Nicola Fuljames, offers to share her lunch with him, Corn Muffins. Wintergreen loves Corn Muffins, and he soon discovers that Mary bakes the most amazing corn muffins. He finds himself attracted to Mary, a girl not even in the contest.
The judging of The Beauty Contest, takes place in the Parlour of an Atlantic City Hotel suite, the chosen winner is that most beautiful blossom Diana Deaveraux. The Judges explain why she was chosen, in: Because, Because and Never Was There A Girl So Fair, which involved the beauty queen standing in the centre of the stage, while the actors playing the contest judges pointed out her assets. They point out various things, in particular her dimpled knees, and ending with the line “And as for her hips... she hasn’t any” which seemed quite funny to those of us who know that this woman once spent a film with the armature of a Skeksis cantilevered off her hips. The actress is dressed in a somewhat odd costume, it is mainly a sort of tight fitting trouser suit, but with a skirt arrangement over her hips, I think it was supposed to be hiding her hips, although, given that this is a concert staging that wasn’t really necessary. Since she has rather good legs, I am surprised that her costume was not arranged to show them off.
Wintergreen is clearly smitten with Mary Turner, and her corn muffins, Some Girls Can Bake A Pie. He loves corn muffins, and thus we now came to one of the most memorable little dialogue scene (I thought it a shame Opera North cut this scene from their version), Wintergreen comes up to Diana and says “Can you cook corn muffins?” “Ah can cook Southern Fried Chicken,” replies Diana in a thick near-perfect Southern drawl. “That doesn’t count” says Wintergreen, and reiterates, “Can you cook corn muffins?” “No, Ah can’t cook corn muffins,” replies Diana, to Wintergreen’s disappointment. According to the script Diana Deaveraux is a Southern Belle from Louisiana, so naturally she has to have a Southern States accent, in the Opera North version she had a small town Tennessee Twang, Kim Criswell’s natural voice; in this production, needless to say, with Louise Gold’s gift for accents, her accent is more Louisiana, complete with the Louisiana and East Texas of saying “Ah” instead of “I”.
Wintergreen has proposed to Mary in 47 of the 48 states, now live on radio in Madison Square Gardens, introduced by James Vaughan’s radio announcer, he proposes in the 48th, and like the other 47 times, she accepts, on condition he is elected President. They, and most of the company, sing Love Is Sweeping The Country, followed by the title song Of Thee I Sing.
Now we came to one of the funniest, silliest and most memorable scenes in the show (also cut from the Opera North version), made all the more memorable by this company’s attempt at performing it. The election has been cast, and now the votes are now coming in. Down stage on the audience’s right, hand corner, someone, Stephen Fewell, I think, is reading out the election results. However, diagonally upstage (towards the back centre) of him most of the company are clustered around and paying attention to a wrestling match, acted out by Simon Roberts and James Vaughan. Meanwhile, the audience faced a third distraction, when a (supposed to be off-stage) performer, who shall be nameless, corpsed midway through the scene.
Of course Wintergreen wins the election. Act 1 ends with his inauguration as President and marriage to Mary, A Kiss For Cinderella. Everything seems to be going well, until, we hear the “off-stage” singing of “the lady known as Lou”, enter, Diana Devereaux demanding justice, I Was The Most Beautiful Blossom. Wintergreen protests he has found the one girl who can really bake Corn Muffins, reprise Some Girls Can Bake A Pie (Corn Muffins), to which Diana replies, in song, “Who cares about Corn Muffins, all I demand is justice”. The question is put to the Senators “Which is more important, Corn Muffins or Justice”, they decide “Corn Muffins”. Exit Diana declaring she will sue President Wintergreen for breach of promise, while the rest of the company reprise the title song.
Act 2 opens with Jenkins and Miss Benson, Edward Baker-Duly and Ashleigh Sendin respectively, and the chorus in The Presidents Office in The White House, Hello, Good Morning, A Guided tour is taking place, with James Vaughan as the tour guide and Jason Nolan, Stephen McCarthy and Michaela Noakes as the tourists. Throttlebottem, the unmemorable vice-President, is trying to get in, and finds, as no one has heard of him, the only way he can do so is to join the tour. Things get quite amusing when they reach the Vice President’s Office, and one of the tourists asks “What does the Vice President do?” the guide doesn’t know, but Throttlebottem has some idea, much to the guide’s annoyance.
Meanwhile, The President and his party are rather more concerned with the bad publicity that Diana Devereaux is stirring up by trying to sue the President. In an attempt to combat this they do a press conference singing a declaration of their love for each other, Who Cares. Unfortunately for them events are about to take a nasty turn, with the arrival of a group of French Soldiers.
Enter the ever-versatile James Vaughan in his fourth final and funniest character, The French Ambassador. It seems that, because Diana is of French descent, France is simply furious at the way President Wintergreen has treated Diana Devereaux. “Diana Devereaux? since when is she of French descent?” someone enquires. Since when indeed, given that she had to be American to be eligible to enter the beauty contest. The French Ambassador explains, in the song The Illegitimate Daughter that “She’s The Illegitimate Daughter of an illegitimate son, of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon”. This was one of the best and funniest songs in the entire show, James Vaughan is a fine comic singer and he really did it justice.
With the French nation up in arms over the Devereaux business The Senators decide that there is only one thing for it, they are going to have to impeach their President. They call a meeting of The Senate, presided over by Vice-President Throttlebottem, to set this in motion. At last the Vice-President gets to do something. His first task is to announce the names of the Senators as they arrive, in the song The Senator From Minnesota, which ends after several senators have been announced, with a neat line by Ira Gershwin, “The Senators from other States will have to bide their time, because I simply can’t be bothered when the names don’t rhyme.” Then it is down to the business in hand; The French Ambassador and Soldiers are present, and when someone asks “What of Devereaux?” they receive the response “She’s still singing”. We promptly hear Deveraux’s supposedly off-stage, singing. She walks round the back of the others to enter, and enters standing, supposedly framed in a doorway, on the left of the stage, in a pose, diagonally facing the back right corner of the stage, with her left arm raised towards it, looking as if she’d have been more ‘at-home’ with a puppet on the end of that arm. I Was The Most Beautiful Blossom, she reprised, and yet she has been Jilted Jilted. Here Louise Gold added a little embellishment of her own to her character. Keeping in mind the fact that though a Southern Bell, Diana is of French descent, Louise Gold, who has a true gift for accents, now added a French accent on top of her Southern States accent, to produce a sort of cross between the two. This concoction worked surprisingly well, and fitted in very nicely along side The French Ambassador, James Vaughan,’s more than satisfactory French accent. Both performers should be noted for their ability to sing very well in accent.
The Senate decide that unless Wintergreen divorces Mary and marries Diana, they will impeach him. On hearing the news Wintergreen is almost resigned to the fact that he will have to resign, as President. Suddenly Mary bursts in singing I’m About To Be A Mother. Since The Senate have never yet impeached an expectant father, they decide to allow Wintergreen to continue as President. Posterity Is Just Around The Corner.
The finale takes place in a Ballroom at The Whitehouse, assembled are most of the company, The President, The Senators, The Supreme Court. And somewhere along the line, Diana and The French Ambassador also turn up. Now it is James Vaughan’s turn to embellish the show, by embarking on a little exploration of the emotional side to his character, though there is nothing in the script to suggest this character even has an emotional side! His individual interpretation had the beneficial effect of turning an otherwise dull stereo-type into living breathing character, in stark contrast to the rather wooden Opera North portrayal.
At last, with Trumpeter Blow Your Horn a Doctor, played by Ian Duncan, announces that Mary’s baby has been born, they then call upon the Supreme Court to determine the gender of the infant, enter the One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Supreme Court Judges, lead by Robert Carlin as the Chief Justice, because “On The Matter No One Budges, for all cases of the sort are decided by the judges of the supreme court”. Just has they have decided it is a Boy, the Doctor/Trumpeter strikes up again, Mary has had a second baby, this time the Supreme Court declare it to be a girl. There was then a third burst from the trumpeter, this time “just practicing”. Now the scene became dominated, as had most of the show, by 3 actors: The French Ambassador promptly lays claim to the babies on behalf of France, and Diana., because the birth-rate in France has been plummeting and Wintergreen should have married Diana, so she could have borne his children. Wintergreen retorted “Let her have her own babies” “But I’m not married.” protests Diana. Wintergreen responds “But she’s illegitimate isn’t she?” “There has already been enough illegitimacy in her family.” replies The French Ambassador, looking affectionately at Miss Devereaux.
Eventually, Wintergreen and the Senators realised, “When the President is unable to fulfil his obligations the Vice-President takes them on”, and resolve the matter by deciding that Throttlebottem will marry Diana Devereaux in place of Wintergreen. Throttlebottem seems to be quite happy to fulfil this job, and so the show comes to a happy conclusion, at least according to the script. The ending seemed rather contrived, and not entirely convincing. This may have been due to the script, although it could also have been due to the performers individual characterisations, some of them were less than convincing in their acceptance of the conclusion. I don’t know about sweeping the country, but love certainly swept this show into some very odd corners.
This was a rather strange Lost Musicals production. It may have been a strange book by George S Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind in the first place, although the book did not seem any more strange than I’d Rather Be Right or Strike Up The Band or even it’s own successor Let ‘Em Eat Cake. The oddness may have been due as much to the individual performances in this particular production as anything else. I am not saying that the group as a whole performed badly, indeed the company, which included: Simon Roberts, Fiona Dunn, Frank Thornton, Philip O’Brien, James Bree, Edward Baker-Duly, Ashleigh Sendin, Robert Carlin, Ian Duncan, Helen Duncan, Stephen Fewell, Michaela Noakes and Harry Landis, whose career seems to have come almost full circle from his Unity Theatre days, were all up to The Lost Musicals usual standard.
However, the balance of power between the various characters did appear to have been tilted away from some of the supposed principles. The shows stars are supposed to be the actors playing John P Wintergreen, Mary Turner, and Alexander Throttlebottem. In this case: Henry Goodman, Nicola Fuljames and Peter Jones. Of these three only Henry Goodman actually seemed to have the required command of the stage, nobody, not even the most unrestrained scene stealers could steal a scene from him. Nicola Fuljames is a good actress, (not to mention singer and dancer) given the right production she could quite possibly carry the lead in a show, but in this production her leading lady was overshadowed by the “other woman”. The actor playing Alexander Throttlebottem – what was his name? - Peter Jones was, ironically, too much like his character, the unremembered Vice-President, to stand out. Even so, they might have managed to make the necessary impact were it not for a couple of minor principal actors, who were far too accomplished performers to be minor principals, and quite simply stole the show. As Diana Devereaux, Louise Gold really has too much presonce and personality to be consigned to a minor principle role, unless the leading lady is capable of matching her powers. While, playing: A Tour Guide, A Radio Announcer, A Wrestler, and finally The French Ambassador, James Vaughan is a wonderfully funny and versatile actor, whose individual portrayals can make even a cardboard stereo-type of a character come alive. He was by far the most memorable comic actor in the show. Thus it was really Henry Goodman, Louise Gold and James Vaughan who carried this production.
Even with the shifted balance of power between the characters, the standards of performance were certainly up to Ian Marshall Fisher’s usual high standards. However, Thanks to the performances of a pair of irrepressible scene-stealers, this production was definitely not one for the purists, since certain minor principals dominated the action far more than some of the principals did! In a purist production such a thing would be out of place; but, I think that one of the great joys of the informality of the Lost Musicals productions is that if a couple of actors decide to steel the show from all and sundry they can get away with doing so, and it still works, it’s still a good fun show to go and see.