After several successful seasons of mounting beloved shows for family audiences, the St. Jean’s Players have chosen to bring a lesser-known gem to life. Of Thee I Sing should hold a greater place in the musical theater canon. The book was written by the esteemed George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and both brothers Gershwin contributed to the music (George did the music, Ira did the lyrics). Most significantly, of all, Sing won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1932 – the first musical comedy to do so.
Bryan McHaffey directs this light political satire. Bachelor candidate John P. Wintergreen (James Lane) runs for president on a campaign of love. Presciently, the show sees many beauty pageant contestants “audition” to be Wintergreen’s wife and therefore provide the White House with a First Lady. A triangle forms when Wintergreen picks secretary Mary Turner (Megan Petersen), though Miss Louisiana Diana Devereaux (a devilish Kelly Campbell) wins the contest set up by Wintergreen’s campaign advisors. As if there was any doubt, Wintergreen wins the election in the first act.
Devereaux seeks revenge and enlists the French Ambassador (Alex Arruda, displaying a broader comedic side after appearing in St. Jean’s’ Gypsy last year) to help her. The two concoct a scheme in which she claims to be an illegitimate descendant of Napoleon, and the Ambassador threatens to turn this scandal of the heart into an international affair, with the goal to impeach the President for breach of promise.
By today’s standards, the story is quaint and convenient, and the jokes are dated. But as innocent as it was (perfect for the audiences at St. Jean’s), it contains messages both innocent (praising family and hard work) and cynical (lambasting the political machine). The score is also quite lovely; although it doesn’t include any numbers that exist in the Gershwins’ canon, the ensemble sings numbers like “Love Is Sweeping the Country,” “The Senator from Minnesota,” and the title song to the hilt.
However, it was another kind of drama that made the evening I attended Sing such a memorable – and highly impressive – performance. An announcement made prior to the start of Act I averred that Lane would still sing, but not in full voice, due to illness. It is apparent from his dialogue delivery that Lane has a deep resonant voice, and while I was disappointed not to hear it, nothing could prepare me for the surprise of hearing musical director Razy Jordan step in and sing for Lane. (Linda Blacken on the horn and Alicia Rau on the trumpet backed her up at every step.) Jordan was pitch-perfect in all of Wintergreen’s songs while singing from the orchestra. While I am inclined to believe that this switch was a spontaneous one, all members of the company played it seamlessly.
In the second act, Petersen, too, sang some of Wintergreen’s lyrics, and her gorgeous voice covered perfectly, capping what was already a sweet, warm leading performance. And yet perhaps one of the greatest result of this modification was that Lane maintained a perfectly-honed performance, compensating by stance and gesture where his voice failed him. Jay Fink, Arthur Gruen, and Michael Jones also proved to be deft supporting players, with great timing, and the multi-talented actresses who played the beauty queens all distinguished between those roles and their other swing roles with aplomb. Kudos yet again to the St. Jean’s Players, for reviving a forgotten classic – and for proving that the show must go on.