Thursday, 26 February 2009


21/2/09, Sadler's Wells.

2 hrs 30 mins (2 o'clock matinee) and 3 hrs (7.30 evening show). A pair of Gershwin "operas" ("musicals"? "operettas"?) written in 1931 and 1933 satirising American politics. The Gerswhins were great fans of Gilbert & Sullivan as kids, apparently, and it shows.

Both operas take place in a topsy-turvy world, reminiscent of Iolanthe. A politician called John P Wintergreen gets elected president after running a "love campaign" during which he meets and marries the girl of his dreams and corn muffin-maker par excellence, Mary. In the second opera Wintergreen is out of office and trying to make a living selling blue shirts, but the depression has kicked in: he and his cronies form a "blue shirt" movement and stage a coup with the aid of the army.

The Gershwins clearly had no illusions about politicians. Though Wintergreen presents himself as an idealist his administration is corrupt and incompetent; there are jobs for the boys (a Jewish garment trader as Secretary for Agriculture, for instance) and only Mary comes out of it smelling of roses.

There's plenty of sometimes rather laboured Gilbertain dialogue with the same topical/satirical jokes, including one about a politician only giving a speech if he wants the stock market to go down. What do you do if you want it to go up? he's asked. "I wish I knew" comes the reply. It got a big laugh.

The tunes are OK, though not especially hummable: the only exception is Of Thee I Sing itself (perhaps because it's reprised at the end). The lyrics are witty and Gilbertian in a positive way, and probably the best thing about both operas, but you couldn't hear enough of 'em.

In general there was too much plot and not enough music. And perhaps this production would have been betgter if the chorus had been Broadway youngsters not Opera North choristers.

The production skimped on the set to pay for the costumes (which were nonetheless often too grey). There were big problems with the staging. The director seemed unhappy moving people around and the performers always seemed to form up in straight lines, very static. There was a permanent walkway across the back which served as podium for politicians, catwalk for models and what have you, but which led to some unnecessary awkwardnesses (when Mary Wintergreen appeared in her wedding desk, for instance, someone had to fetch a chair so she could step up onto the walkway). And there were unforgivable errors with the lighting, especially downstage front when the vamp Diana Devereaux had to deliver her big number in semi-darkness.

There were some nice touches. The senators all had ridiculously long beards. The vice-president is a nonentity called Throttlebottom (Steven Beard: an actor who could sing rather than a singer having trouble acting), ignored by everybody, who is at one point the subject of a fine patter song with the refrain "Let's throttle Throttlebottom". When he's sentenced to be executed by the guillotine it won't work; Throttlebottom helpfully spots what the problem is and tries to fix it (an old gag, but funny). There's a neat chorus for nine Supreme Court judges (who reappear in the second opera, where the Gerswhins were clearly running out of really good ideas, as a baseball team playing the League of Nations in a winner takes all game for US war debts). The front cloth had a stars and stripes with 48 corn muffins in place of the (then) 48 stars representing the states.

Some of the performances were a little under-powered, but Richard Suart was excellent as the French ambassador in the first one, and rather showed the rest up.

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