Opera North – Let ’em eat cake

Let ’em eat cake – Music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, book by George S. Kaufman & Morrie Ryskind

General Adam Snookfield USA / President of the Union League – Richard Suart
Trixie Flynn – Jeni Bern
Flunkey – David Llewellyn
Louis Lippman – Nicholas Sharratt
Mrs Lippmann – Miranda Bevin
Francis X Gilhooley / Uncle William / Ice Cream Vendor – Martin Hyder
Mrs Gilhooley – Hazel Croft
Matthew Arnold Fulton – Rob Edwards
Mrs Fulton – Claire Pascoe
Senator Robert E. Lyons – Graham Howes
Mrs Lyons – Victoria Sharp
Senator Carver Jones – Richard Morris
Mrs Jones – Nicola Unwin
Alexander Throttlebottom – Steven Beard
John P. Wintergreen – William Dazeley
Mary Wintergreen – Rebecca Moon
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – Peter Bodenham
Kruger – Richard Burkhard
Lieutenant – Paul Gibson
John P. Tweedledee – Nicholas Butterfield
Children’s Nurse – Kathryn McGuckin
Secretary – Gillene Herbert

Campaign Paraders, Paraders, Judges, Passers-by, Radicals, Salesgirls, Customers, The Union League, Army, Blue Shirts, Daughters of the American Revolution, League of Nations, Interpreters, Supreme Ball Players, Sailors – Chorus of Opera North

Orchestra of Opera North
Wyn Davies

Caroline Gawn – Director
Tim Hopkins – Set Designer & Filmmaker
Gabrielle Dalton – Costume Designer
Wolfgang Göbbel – Lighting Designer
Caroline Pope – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 20 February, 2009
Venue: Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

Two years after the success of “Of thee I sing”, in 1933, the Gershwins and their writers, Morrie Ryskind and George S. Kaufman, produced a sequel, “Let ’em eat cake”. As the first show had been such a popular and critical hit as well as winning a Pulitzer Prize, perhaps they felt obliged to recreate its success. But they may have been wrong. Having satirised war in “Strike up the band” and politics in “Of thee I sing”, they proceeded to send-up everybody and everything. But the times were not good – another world war was being headed to. Against a background of the rise of Hitler any fun that might have been had from such a send-up would be short-lived, as indeed was the run for “Let ’em eat cake” which lasted just 89 performances. (“Of thee I sing” had run for five times that amount.)

“Let ‘em eat cake” had the same team of writers, producer and director but the moment had passed and it sank virtually without trace. Indeed Opera North’s new production is its British stage premiere and follows concert performances in the Lost Musicals series and a BBC Radio production in 1994.

“Let ’em eat cake” could be described as being like “Of thee I sing” – only more so. It takes place four years after John P. Wintergreen’s Presidential appointment. He’s up for election again but faces competition from one John P. Tweedledee who gains the popular vote. Wintergreen is ousted. He and his wife Mary move to New York where they set up a business selling the blue shirts that Mary makes but they find business is bad. There is an economic recession. A dissident worker, Kruger, warns Wintergreen that the people are rebellious. So he taps into the burgeoning public unrest by deciding to start a revolution. If Italy can have black shirts and Germany brown shirts, why can’t America have blue shirts?

With every shirt sold there’s promise of a revolution – or your money back. But to be successful he has to engage the support of the Army. With the aid of Mary he finally manages to overthrow the Tweedledee democracy and Wintergreen takes over as the dictator of the United States. Back in the White House, Wintergreen paints it blue, turns the Supreme Court judges into a baseball team, playing against the League of Nations, and appoints Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom (the running gag from “Of thee I sing”) as umpire. The upshot of the game is that Throttlebottom is accused of conspiracy, as is Wintergreen and his committee. All involved are sentenced to be beheaded.

Re-enter the dissident Kruger who proclaims himself the new dictator. Before the guillotine is put to use, Mary saves the day by holding a fashion show – under the new revolution only wives are permitted to wear blue. If they get rid of Kruger they can wear what they like. The women do their stuff, the Republic is saved, and Wintergreen quits politics to open a clothing store, while his opponent Tweedledee goes off to run Cuba, thus leaving Throttlebottom to take his place in the White House.

If “Let ‘em eat cake” is much like “Of thee I sing”, only more so, then it is also like Gilbert & Sullivan, and even more so. There are so many plot complications and extended operetta scenes that you would be forgiven for thinking that this was an undiscovered G & S work. Perhaps it’s no surprise because apparently the Gershwin brothers were besotted by Gilbert & Sullivan, and director and co-writer George S. Kaufman even wrote “Hollywood Pinafore”, retaining Sullivan’s music but re-writing Gilbert’s lyrics, transferring the setting to a Hollywood film studio.

Seventy-five years after its first staging the comedy elements of this political satire can be seen in perspective, so that it now appears funnier than it probably did then. With hindsight and the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, the political implications now do not matter so much and they just seem to be farcical situations rather than a reflection of ‘real’ events: hence the silly names of the leading characters who are really just figures of fun. There are some great gags in the show and the performers put their hearts and souls into it, so it is hard to believe that “Let ’em eat cake” will get such a good or as lavish production as this again.

As Wintergreen and Mary, William Dazeley and Rebecca Moon seem to have grown into their roles, while Steven Beard continues to act to hilarious effect as the innocently foolish Vice President Throttlebottom. But it is a company show that gets the full treatment from its large cast, a chorus of very fine singers and orchestral players who manage the extended scenes and linked numbers extremely well under Wyn Davies. Gershwin’s magnificent and melodic score is arguably even better than that for “Of thee I sing”, although only one song, ‘Mine’ came out of it as a standard. It also ended up in the score for the 1952 revival of “Of thee I sing”, while that title song is reprised for the finale of “Let ’em eat cake”. Caroline Gawn’s direction and Tim Hopkins’s and Gabrielle Dalton’s designs repeat their success from the first show and emphasise what a treat it has been to see these rare shows back on the boards in such splendidly well mounted recreations.

  • Let ’em eat cake is at The Lowry, Salford Quays, Manchester on 27 & 28 February 2009 with Of thee I sing on 28 February matinee (0870 787 5780); and at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 6 & 7 March with Of thee I sing on 7 March matinee (0841 811 2121)

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