But the Gershwins got there in 1931, winning the first Pulitzer prize ever awarded to a musical for their pains. Hell, they even wrote a climactic impeachment number. Who was their adviser, Mystic Meg? Four years later, they premiered Porgy and Bess, but there's little hint of that operatic depth in the toe-tapping dance numbers and the sparky songs in Of Thee I Sing. And yet, despite echoes of American-style Gilbert and Sullivan choruses and patter, the closer you look, the more you see signs of the future. Each act builds to a huge concerted finale and along the way, there are large-scale set pieces. But here, the mood is unfailingly humorous: these were the days when people wrote musical comedies.
In 1999, the collision between prescient art and contemporary life is striking, and not just with regard to America. "What party are we?" asks dashing young John P Wintergreen (a well-cast Gavin Lee). "Don't worry," comes the reply, "there'll be plenty of time to worry about that after we're elected." For reasons too amusingly daft to explain, conniving party aides persuade him to run for President - "He's the man the people choose/ Loves the Irish and the Jews". As the witty script puts it, "War debt, wheat or immigration? We appeal to your hearts not your intelligence". John has agreed to wed the winner of a nationwide beauty contest so that he can campaign on a "love" ticket. So, to the infectiously scurrying "Love is Sweeping the Country", the company sing "All the sexes/ From Maine to Texas/ Have never known such love before." But seconds before the winner - Southern gold-digger Diana Devereaux - is announced, John falls for the home-baking charms of secretary Mary. Slighted and outraged, Diana stomps off to wreak havoc, wooing the press and voters into the bargain. Did anyone mention the word "Lewinsky"?
The delightfully knowing tone is complemented by Jonathan Best's cheap but decidedly cheery production with his well-drilled, 23-strong cast. The dialogue scenes could do with more detail and pace, but the musical staging is a treat thanks to Stephen Mears's choreography, which really lifts the spirits, particularly in the deft way he continually re-groups the dancers to produce rushes of energy. Peter Gale steals the show as a hilarious Maurice Chevalier-esque ambassador, but he's almost matched by Jonjo O'Neill and Fiona Benjamin. Mike Nichols's movie Primary Colors tried to satirise American politics with pretty toothless results. By contrast, this revival of Of Thee I Sing is positively toothsome.
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