Monday, September 30, 2013

Presidential Suite (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Not sure I've ever reviewed a musical on this blog ere now. To be honest, I don't see that many--more for financial reasons than any other. Yet truth to tell, I do enjoy them quite a bit!

Presidential Suite had its world premiere September 27 and the producers very kindly invited me to attend. The premise frankly seems silly. Imagine a pageant in Las Vegas to determine the MVP, Most Valuable President. Literally, a competition between eight finalists among the 43 (the script inaccurately says 44, ignoring Grover Clevelands' two non-consecutive terms) Chief Executives of the United States. For some reason they have all begun manifesting in and around a particular historian (Kim Reed), who's organized this pageant with pretty much every drop of tackiness one might expect.

Although, as the program notes, the swimsuit competition ended up cancelled "due to unforeseen circumstances."

This sounds like the stuff of a comedy sketch on SNL or maybe the Carol Burnett Show. Initially it comes across as a blend of both. Contributing to this is the initially broad portraits. Andrew Jackson (Bradley Thomas Kuykendall) keeps getting into arguments with Teddy Roosevelt (Alex Walters). A remarkable short (the real man was six feet in height) Thomas Jefferson (Matthew Hoffman) using supremely precise language and witticisms more appropriate to 1776 than 2013. Harry S. Truman (Irwin Moskowitz) acting thoroughly unimpressed while Abraham Lincoln (Edgar Allan Poe IV) smiles, uttering homilies with a down home twang. Lots of little details seem wrong. JFK (Abbott Alexander) looks older than Kennedy ever reached. And so on. I laughed, disturbed by minor inaccuracies only because of my own pickyness about details. The whole thing seemed funny, especially with everybody jealous over Lincoln's personal prestige, especially George Washington (James Schendel) and FDR (John Eddings).

Loved it when those two shared a fist-bump. Captured the whole absurd premise of the show in that one gesture.

But Lincoln ends up alone on stage for a moment, his hillybilly jovial mask slips. He sings a solo, recalling his past and comparing it to this present. We get a glimpse something complex as well as compelling. Not for the last time in this show we view a man of great accomplishments, considerable ambition and ability, who in his heart of hearts sees himself a failure. "Your Sacrifice," his song, is a wail of despair. And that makes a devastating kind of sense, given his relentless humor up until then. We all know, do we not, that clowns are sad? All that humor--what is if for, if not as a kind of anasthetic?

Turns into a theme before long. In particular two other presidents have similar numbers. Thomas Jefferson sings "The Best Any Man can Do" as a virtual apology to the female African American stage manager Lorraine (Shae Wilson). After all, he was an abolitionist who owned slaves. Loved a slave. But did not free her or them. For the record, the real Jefferson did seem to feel that way as he neared death, haunted by the what he seemed to view as his great failure.

Later, and very appropriately, Richard Nixon (Steve Nevil) tells his fellow Presidents what he himself learned in the wake of his own train wreck, "I'm Not the Man in That Picture Now."

All of which sounds a lot more solemn than the show overall ends up being.  There's plenty of humor and silliness, as well as clever character bits throughout. Jackson, arguably in total keeping with what he know of his real character, never has a reflective moment. In face he ends up singing a rap song. Don't try to figure it out, just accept it. Frankly I was amused as everyone pretty much agrees in the play that he's an ass (my own opinion as a matter of fact). On top of all this remains a plot--one I won't give away because it gives some genuine surprises.

Bottom line, I was expecting entertainment little more as I sat down to see this show. Imagine my pleasant (and intense) surprise to find myself moved!

Presidential Suite plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until October 27, 2013 at Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center 11006 Magnolia Blvd. North Hollywood, CA  9160. You can make reservations at  (323) 960-7724.

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