Saturday, 26 September 2015

Of thee I sing, Squabbalogic/Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

The biggest musical of 1932, "Of Thee I sing" has slightly slipped into being a trivia answer since ("the first musical to win the Putlizer Prize"). With a script by Morrie Ryskind and George Kaufman, who, among other things, co-wrote a number of early Marx Brothers hits, it's inevitably wildly silly, and while the Gershwins wrote the score, it isn't a score that produced any standards that have had a big life outside the score (unlike, say, the other big musical of the 1930s currently playing in the Opera Theatre, "Anything Goes" - which oddly enough, shared two of its original leads with "Of thee I sing").

A spoof of American Presidential politics, "Of Thee I sing" tells of the adventures of John P. Wintergreen - "everybody loves him, and they'll vote for him whether they want to or not". The party machine decide they need a cause, and after consulting a grouchy chambermaid, they decide their cause will be Love - their candidate will find true love on the campaign trail with the assistance of a national beauty pageant. It sounds like it should work wonderfully, until, of course, Wintergreen finds affection instead with a campaign worker, Mary, who just makes great corn muffins. But the deposed beauty queen, Diana Devereux, isn't going to take this lying down, and she has some surprising connections...

In all honesty, Kaufman and Ryskind's book is the kinda script that could use a little creative editing around the edges. It does have a reasonable mount of wit to it, but there are some longeurs that coulda been trimmed (in particular, Mary has a conversation about White House catering that goes nowhere, and in a show that lasts two hours fourty-five minutes, perhaps a parody of Senate tedium is not what you want to introduce at the two hours twenty mark). The Gershwin's score is bouncy though reprise heavy, with plenty of opportunities for big choral work which the couple of hundred members of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs launch into with gusto (although some sections needed tighter diction as witty lyrics disappeared in a vocal muddle). If the score does feel a little like they're imitating Gilbert and Sullivan without bringing a lot new to the table, it does at least have a reasonable pep to it.

Squabbalogic's casting is, as usual, impeccable. David Berry's Wintergreen has that all important combination of smarm and charm - you know he's a shifty bastard but you like him anyway. Courtney Glass' Mary is loving without being a complete doormat, Jaimie Leigh Johnson's Diana gives good quality indignant rage, and James Jay Moody's Throttlebottom is dweebishly ridiculous. Sharing fourteen of the other roles between them, Blake Erikson, Nathon Farrow and Rob Johnson morph gracefully between whatever is required of them, often in mid-scene.

If it's not the greatest musical ever written, "Of Thee I Sing" is never the less an entertaining artefact of 1930s Americana that pleasantly diverts

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