What glorious schmaltz is George and Ira Gershwin's "Of Thee I Sing,"
and how rarely performed. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco
Symphony are offering an excellent staged concert performance of it in
Davies Hall for two more days after Thursday night's opener.
In a questionable move, MTT is adding to the abbreviated "Of Thee" a
similarly shortened version of "Let 'Em Eat Cake," a poor sequel, which
repeats most of the music. Short as the two halves may be, the evening
runs over 2 1/2 hours, and there is not much musical novelty (or value)
after the intermission.
The Gershwins wrote an operetta, not a musical, a 1930s New World edition
of the sweet, sweeping, "cheap" melodies of Romberg, Lehar, Kalman,
Korngold (except for "Who Cares?" which has a uniquely brilliant musical
The preposterously impossible story about an American President being
impeached because of a woman has additional writing by George S. Kaufman
and Morrie Ryskind, orchestration by Robert Russell Bennnet. Patricia
Birch directed the lively production (belying the idea of a "concert
performance") with projections, the singers moving throughout the hall,
the chorus and even the orchestra being involved in the action. Uncredited
but certain is the guiding, creative hand of MTT, for whom the entire
summer festival of "Yiddish Theater, Broadway, and the American Voice"
is a personal matter.
The music director recruited a crackerjack cast, actor-singers (or singing
actors) them all. Carrying the evening theatrically is Mo Rocca as Vice
President Throttlebottom, popping out of various undisclosed locations
("updated" references are everywhere, but not overdone), with a sufficient
voice, but an easy, natural and very funny stage presence.
Two great ladies of musical theater, Lisa Vroman (as the First Lady) and
Marin Mazzie (Diana Devereaux, "that woman," who is also the "illegitimate
daughter of the illegitimate son of the illegitimate son of Napoleon's
bastard nephew, her alleged plight rallying the French nation against
the US), are responsible for much of the concert's vocal splendor.
Vroman, well at home in both opera and musicals, had a strange start
when those two voices kept switching back and forth, but after a couple
of minutes, she settled into a smooth, effective performance, vocally
as steady as her stage presence always is.
Stephen Bogardus (President Wintergreen) was vocally splendid, Kevin
Chamberlin (French Ambassador/Gen. Snookfield) a comic riot. Soloists
from the SFS Chorus in multiple character roles, most notably as the
nine Supreme Court judges, had the time of their lives.
There were missed light cues and amplification hiccups obscuring the
chorus' diction, but in the end it was "Love Is Sweeping the Country,"
"Some Girls Can Bake a Pie," the great title song, and - above all -
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