The connection between modern world events and Of Thee I Sing, George S Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind's 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning play with music by the Gershwins, is not a mere tenuous marketing ploy by Opera North but rather a stark reality. The company has just mounted a new production of the piece and will also stage its sequel, Let 'em Eat Cake, after Christmas, with the two running as a double bill in various venues including Sadler's Wells in London in February.
While there were certainly some shortcomings at this performance of Of Thee I Sing in Salford, the wit of the book, music and lyrics shone through, and the rare opportunity to see the piece in a full staging was more than welcome.
The show deals with the candidacy and early presidency of John P Wintergreen, who declares that the way to gain power is to appeal to the hearts, not the heads, of the electorate. Cue a national beauty contest, with the winner to become Wintergreen's wife, but the politician falls instead for his campaign secretary, Mary Turner, whose proficiency at baking corn muffins captivates him, and they marry.
Needless to say, Diana Devereaux, the actual victor of the contest, isn't at all happy at this turn of events and she enlists the support of the French Ambassador to her cause. He arrives to declare that she's 'the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon', somewhat throwing a spanner in the works, but needless to say it all ends in love and happiness.
For me, the main weakness of Opera North's presentation of the piece is the decision not to amplify the voices. Whilst microphones were not used in the original production, it seems to me that it would be a lot easier for the audience to engage with the piece if the words came across more clearly. Kaufman and Ira Gershwin are about one-liners and quick wittedness, but some of the jokes fell flat simply because one had to strain to hear them. To me, there would be no shame in using amplification – why reject the aid of modern technology just for the sake of purism? – and I feel it would help to give the show a bigger impact.
Nevertheless, there's much to enjoy in Caroline Gawn's production, and while Tim Hopkins' sets aren't what you'd call glossy, they aren't as sparse as I'd expected on the basis of having read some of the reviews in the national papers. The locations are more than satisfactorily represented – for instance the desks and carpet in the oval office, which the Wintergreens share equally upon marriage, and a satirical cut-out of the Capitol Building – and the acting is generally detailed, if not always outstanding. For me, there's absolutely nothing wrong with having economical props such as placards if they make their point and if the space is well used, as is the case here. A shame the chorus moves awkwardly in one or two places, but on the whole they throw themselves into it gamely and I just wish that the words and voices had a bit more punch.
William Dazeley leads the cast with charisma as Wintergreen, doing an all-round good job of singing, dancing and acting, though I felt that Bibi Heal was not at her best vocally in the role of Mary Turner. Heather Shipp was outstanding as Diana Devereaux, projecting clearly and displaying great comic timing. Steven Beard was also very amusing as Throttlebottom, if a little underpowered, and on the whole the rest of the cast was good, with audibility the only issue. That said, the veteran Richard Suart was absolutely outstanding as the French Ambassador, practically stealing the show with his pastiche Gilbert and Sullivan list song (calling to mind his legendary turn in ENO's Mikado), and he got the message and the music across without apparent trouble.
There were no serious flaws in the orchestral playing, but for me the conducting of Mark W Dorrell was the other big weakness of the evening. Co-ordination between stage and pit sometimes went completely awry, and in spite of his impressive credits in the musical theatre repertoire – including the National Theatre's famous Little Night Music – I was surprised at the lack of panache and style in the musical performance, which came nowhere close to the Michael Tilson Thomas recording (well worth seeking out). That said, perhaps the lack of amplification made Dorrell feel he had to keep the orchestral level subdued, with a resultant feeling of enervation during some of the numbers sung by secondary characters.
The bigger, concerted numbers, however, were catchy and uplifting, and on the whole Of Thee I Sing makes for an engaging evening of sophisticated wit and charming music.
Photo credits: Alastair Muir
Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum