|Gershwin:||Of Thee I Sing|
Wintergreen: Tony Clements
Throttlebottom: James Sampson, baritone
Mary Turner: Culver Casson
Diana Devereaux: Carol-Ann Edwards, sporano
The Madison Opera's production of Gershwin's musical Of Thee I Sing Sunday afternoon at the Union Theater featured several strong singer-actors and displayed generally solid production values, clearly delighting a good-sized house. David Torney's settings were highly flexible and functional, creating the necessary illusions and containing large numbers of people quite nicely. William Owen's lighting design was fairly static and conservative, but certainly workable. I was told there had been a change of director barely five days before the Friday opening of the show, which could easily explain a certain lack of fluidity in the on-stage business, especially in several major dialog segments. Johnathon Pape certainly made the stage direction work well enough under what must have been far from ideal conditions. There was a lot of dancing -- I wondered if the emphasis on tap was original or a nod to recent stage fashions -- and Carol Marion's choreography worked fairly well, though a couple of the big production numbers looked a little underrehearsed. The costuming was delightful and gave just the right look to the whole setting.
Tony Clements was very strong in the major lead (Wintergreen), with the right tempo in his movements and a clear singing voice. James Sampson did really well with presenting the hapless nerd Throttlebottom, Wintergreen's running mate, which is quite a demanding character part. The two female leads, both operatic voices, were quite good. As Mary Turner, Wintergreen's true love, Culver Casson was (this is praise) just too pert and sweet, while Carol-Ann Edwards as the jilted beauty queen Diana Devereaux struck a good balance between vamp and camp. A large supporting cast managed everything with very few bumps.
On the musical side, there were several points at which I wanted the tempos to pick up significantly, to be more in keeping with the jauntiness of the 30s mood of the piece and to keep the show from becoming too arty. As stories go, this one is pretty silly -- though perhaps it's really not possible to underrate the intelligence of the American electorate -- and concerns electing a President on a program of true love and family values. Some of the satire, on the other hand, is just as biting today as it was in the fertile creative gap between the two world wars. The score, however, is really amazingly modern. There are -- it being Gershwin, how could there not be -- some great songs, the title tune especially.
But in many small matters, for example harmonic and orchestrational aspects, Of Thee I Sing is a very contemporary piece. This was the first time I've ever seen it, and I'm therefore especially glad the Madison Opera took the risk of putting it on. I also hope that community support for the Madison Opera will build considerably. We certainly need it among our cultural assets in the Madison area, yet the list of major corporate and individual sponsorships is not yet large enough to be fully reassuring about the future.
Isthmus, November, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson