Remember when political conventions were fun? When the delegates gathered into town, not to perfunctorily declare a pre-determined winner, but to debate through multiple votes, late night deals and maybe a few protest rallies to come up with a nominee?
As much as we demand transparency and honesty in government, Americans still can’t resist the theatre of juicy political scandals and reports of back room bargaining. Gore Vidal’s 1960 drama, The Best Man, permits us a peek at the seedier side of presidential politics before giving us some hope that decency may stand a chance. As the old saying goes, things haven’t changed much and every so often a line flies out of director Michael Wilson‘s gripping, starry production that if you didn’t know better you’d swear must have been added to give the play a contemporary jolt.
John Larroquette gives a stately and sardonic portrayal of William Russell, a liberal candidate who heads into his unnamed party’s convention leading the race over conservative adversary Senator Joseph Cantwell (a slick and charismatic Eric McCormack). Russell could win on the first ballot unless ex-President Arthur Hockstader (a robust and commanding James Earl Jones, looking like he’s having a splendid time) decides to throw his support in Cantwell’s direction. And while an unseen third candidate stands little chance of victory, his delegates, if released, could also become a deciding factor.
Both Russell and Cantwell have skeletons in the closet; issues that would be more acceptable to many Americans today, but would certainly keep a candidate out office fifty years ago. When one candidate threatens to release evidence against his opponent, the other must consider if he should counter with newly discovered knowledge about a long-ago event – a real doozy for 1960 – that could sink the man’s entire career.
Meanwhile, the wives of the candidates are trying their best to impress the party’s grand dame, played by Angela Lansbury with a delicious mixture of elegance and shrewd cunning. Kerry Butler’s game-playing Mrs. Cantwell sports a sexy drawl and a clingy wardrobe while Candice Bergen’s socially awkward Mrs. Russell – playing the supportive wife despite difficulties in her marriage – blurts out honest observations that are sure to draw applause from audiences.
Solid supporting turns are contributed by Michael McKean as Russell’s capable campaign manager and Jefferson Mays as a nervous citizen whose word could affect the entire election. There’s even an appearance by New York City’s former first lady Donna Hanover, playing a reporter.
While designer Derek McLane’s versatile set smoothly gliding from festive convention locations to hotel suites, Wilson’s edgy mounting smoothly glides from sharp satirical moments to frustratingly realistic ones. This one’s a landslide victory.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: James Earl Jones and John Larroquette; Bottom: Kerry Butler, Eric McCormack and Angela Lansbury.
Perhaps there are funnier shows than Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and perhaps there are shows with more beautiful music. But it’s my conviction that you’re not going to find a funnier theatre piece with such beautiful music, nor a lovelier score matched with such a hilarious text.
The Collegiate Chorale’s concert performance of the 1885 classic, in collaboration with the American Symphony Orchestra and under Ted Sperling’s baton, certainly stressed the enchanting choral qualities of selections like “Miya Sama” and “Braid The Raven Hair” and, with limited space to work with, a terrific cast of Broadway favorites managed to fit a feast of humor onto the lip of Carnegie Hall’s stage.
Christopher Fitzgerald, a superior musical comedy clown who, in another era, might have taken a few jobs away from Eddie Cantor, was an impish delight as Ko-Ko, the humble tailor of a long-ago Japanese village who, by the plot’s twisted politics, winds up being appointed Lord High Executioner. His rendition of “I’ve Got A Little List,” a comic patter naming the people Ko-Ko would like to see upon the chopping block, which is traditionally updated to include topical references, contained expected mentions of the Kardashians and Facebook fanatics, but ended cleverly with a criticism of comics who milk their bits, testing the conductor’s patience.
Victoria Clark’s eccentric Katisha was played out like a madwoman, with the actress seeming to improvise funny bits with her wildly-teased out hair. It’s remarkable how Jason Danieley and Kelli O’Hara could both sing so gloriously with their tongues held so firmly in their cheeks as lovers Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, though O’Hara played it straight for a sterling performance of “The Moon and I.” In the title role, Chuck Cooper matched his hearty vocals with mischievous giggles.
With fine support by Jonathan Freeman as a snobby Pooh-Bah and Lauren Worsham as a snarky Pitti-Sing, the only negative about this concert of The Mikado is that it wasn’t a fully mounted production playing on Broadway.
Photo of Christopher Fitzgerald, Jason Danieley and Kelli O'Hara by Erin Baiano.
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