Opera North – Of thee I sing

Of thee I sing
Music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, book by George S. Kaufman & Morrie Ryskind

Louis Lippman – Nicholas Sharratt
Francis X. Gilhooley / Tour Guide – Martin Hyder
Maid / Scrub Woman – Claire Pascoe
Matthew Arnold Fulton – Rob Edwards
Senator Robert E. Lyons – Graham Howes
Senator Carver Jones – Richard Morris
Alexander Throttlebottom – Steven Beard
John P Wintergreen – William Dazeley
Sam Jenkins – Richard Burkhard
Diana Devereaux – Heather Shipp
Mary Turner – Rebecca Moon
Emily Benson – Sarah Jillian Cox
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – Peter Bodenham
French Ambassador – Richard Suart
Clerk / Flunkey – Nicholas Butterfield
Flunkey – David Llewellyn
Campaign Paraders, Bathing Beauties, Photographers, Supreme Court Judges, The Electorate, White House Secretaries, Reporters, French Soldiers, Senators, Foreign Ministers & Ambassadors – 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: 18 February, 2009
Venue: Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

With the ballyhoo of the recent US Presidential election, perhaps it was inevitable that the Gershwins’ 1930s’ shows “Of thee I sing” and “Let ’em eat cake” would be revived. Who better than Opera North with its splendid past record of staging vintage Broadway musicals? In recent years it has mounted several of Kurt Weill’s works such as “Love life”, “One touch of Venus”, “The seven deadly sins” and “Arms and the cow”. They have also essayed “Show Boat” and “Sweeney Todd” and also “Of thee I sing”. This last was produced in 1998 for the Gershwin centenary but Opera North is now staging another new production of the show and coupling it with its sequel “Let ’em eat cake”, the British stage premiere. The theme for Opera North’s 2008-9 season is political opera and satirical operetta and including David Sawer and Armando Ianucci’s “Skin deep”, a satire on the plastic surgery industry, and to come later is Shostakovich’s satirical comedy “Paradise Moscow”. Very enterprising.

“Of thee I sing” opened in Leeds in October 2008, since when the parallels between current events now and those in the 1930s have drawn closer and closer together. We are now in a global economic decline as seventy years ago. In voting for President Obama, America has elected a new broom, just as in the 1930s, when Hoover failed to achieve a clean sweep, they voted for President Roosevelt.

Although “Of thee I sing” is a satire on American politics, it never really gets close to the antics of today’s US election fever. On the way, however, the Gershwins and their co-writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind managed to send up the American way of presidential elections, conventions and campaigns, marriage, motherhood, beauty contests and home- and foreign-affairs. It was so rapturously received that it won a Pulitzer Prize, for the authors of the book, that is, but not for George Gershwin’s delicious score, because the Pulitzer is a prize for literature.

The show opens during a Presidential election campaign, which is not going well for candidate John P. Wintergreen. Ignoring the would-be Vice President candidate Alexander Throttlebottom, the party leaders take the opinion of a chambermaid whose main concerns are money and love. They then decide to sell Wintergreen to the public on a love-ticket by creating a search for their candidate’s future partner in a beauty contest, the winner of which will marry Wintergreen, in an effort to put love in the White House. Unfortunately the President-elect falls for Mary Turner, one of the campaign secretaries, merely because she can make a mean corn muffin. When the beauty candidate from Louisiana, one Diana Devereaux, wins the pageant, there is uproar because Wintergreen turns her down. Diana threatens to sue for breach of promise but is overruled when the Supreme Court finds in favour of corn muffins over justice!

When the French Ambassador takes up Diana’s cause, revealing that she is the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon, the press play-up the scandal and Wintergreen faces impeachment. When Mary announces she is expecting a baby, the French Ambassador makes a claim for the unborn child. But when she produces twins, the French threaten war if they can’t have the babes. However, in the finale the President finds a way of getting out of marrying Devereaux.It is all very silly and, far from resembling the usual Broadway musical, it has an air of a Gilbert & Sullivan comic-opera about it with a large chorus to comment on the action.

It is also staged by Caroline Gawn rather like G & S. There is little actual dancing as such, more just movement of characters, so that the new production lacks the pizzazz of, say, the Bridewell Theatre’s production some years back in which the choreography was an integral part of the action and gave it a real lift. Opera North’s current staging seems a tad grounded by comparison.

That said, however, there are choice performances from William Dazeley as Wintergreen, although he is a bit dour for a President; G & S veteran Richard Suart is good value as the pompous French Ambassador and Steven Beard as Throttlebottom makes the Vice President an endearing characterisation, a bit like a grown-up baby, arms flailing all over the place in a genuinely funny comic creation. He is a man who doesn’t really want the job of Vice President – after all, his name, which nobody can remember anyway, was only picked out of a hat. Heather Shipp is bold and brassy as the beauty queen from Louisiana with ambitions beyond her reach.

Apart from the title song only two other numbers are really that familiar as hits outside of the show: ‘Love is sweeping the country’ and ‘Who cares?’. Overall it is a great score in a lush orchestration and is played with great vigour by the Opera North Orchestra under Wyn Davies’s direction, while the chorus is well drilled and on its vocal mettle . It looks bright and sassy in Tim Hopkins’s and Gabrielle Dalton’s designs and makes a refreshing change from the current clutch of musicals gracing the West End.

  • Opera North’s Of thee I sing is at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on Saturday 21 February at 2.30 p.m.
  • Let ’em eat cake is on Friday & Saturday, 20 & 21 February, at 7.30 p.m.
  • Tickets 0844 412 4300
  • Sadler’s Wells

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