Categories: Arts

Election time perfect for ‘Of Thee I Sing’

With the presidential election just days away, San Francisco’s 42nd Street Moon hits the jackpot with its 20th season opener “Of Thee I Sing.”

George and Ira Gershwin’s 1931 gem, a semi-forgotten glory of American musical theater, is hilarious, supremely melodic and particularly timely: It’s about the cockeyed adventures of a political campaign.

The first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama some eight decades ago, the work is amazingly, entertainingly relevant today. It’s amazing that the show — with its great title song, as well as “Love Is Sweeping the Country,” “Wintergreen for President” and “Who Cares?” — isn’t produced more frequently.

Seven years ago, the San Francisco Symphony performed an abbreviated version, and now, right on time, 42nd Street Moon — dedicated to preserving and relishing Broadway’s past — has come up with a vivacious, charming and heartfelt production.

Under the helm of company artistic director Greg MacKellan, the show is dynamic, but unhurried. Music director and pianist Michael Anthony Schuler gets excellent sound from an enthusiastic cast of actor-singers, only four of whom are Actors’ Equity union members. Nick di Scala, playing woodwind instruments, is the rest of the “orchestra.”

With no amplification in the 200-seat Eureka, theatergoers often deafened by Broadway over-amplification may find it a novel experience to hear focused sound from the stage, instead of being clobbered by it.

When Noel Anthony (President Wintergreen) and Ashley Jarrett (Mary Turner) sing “Who Cares?” the sound is gentle and embracing. The ecstatic, unusual, unforgettable melody (no wonder George Balanchine created a gorgeous, eponymous ballet around it) is wonderfully treated.

First-class performances from the actors and singers are complemented by Jayne Zaban’s terrifically entertaining choreography, which nicely fills the small stage.

Written 66 years before Bill Clinton came to grief over Monica Lewinsky, the Gershwins’ prophetic story about the impeachment of a president has some twists: Rather than an affair, it is a harebrained campaign idea of a beauty contest that causes no end of trouble.

Wintergreen falls in love with Mary Turner, and marries her, but the contest winner — Miss Devereaux (Brittany Danielle, vamping just right) — lays claim to the prize, and all hell breaks loose.

Between that nutty premise and the thoroughly satisfying resolution are many surprising, outlandish plot elements, such as the Supreme Court deciding the winner of the election. What will 1930s musicals think of next?

SF Examiner
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