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If Candidates Had a `Love' Platform

In Arena Stage's revival, `Of Thee I Sing,' politics is treated with high spirits and snappy music

WHEN the chorus belts out "Wintergreen for President!" they're singing about the guy who is running on the "love ticket," chosen by the National Committee for solid political reasons. As one of the pols explains, "Everyone loves a lover ... he'll be swept into the White House on a tidal wave of love."

In this case the candidate is John P. Wintergreen, played by Gary Beach with insouciance, charm, and a smile that would upstage Ronald Reagan. In the current revival of "Of Thee I Sing" at the Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, the production pulls out all the stops with a musical satire on post-Hoover, pre-FDR politics.

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Although the legendary show won the first Pulitzer Prize for a musical, its creators, book writers George S. Kaufman and Morris Ryskind, with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, didn't treat it with high seriousness. As Wintergreen sighs, "I kind of hoped to have a nice clean campaign without any issues."

But within a scene or two the issues, though not traditional ones, are popping off like convention balloons. By Scene 3 we're in Atlantic City where a Miss White House Contest has attracted a bevy of semi-beautiful contestants who all want to marry Wintergreen and become First Lady. But the campaign publicity goes askew when Wintergreen, desperate not to marry any of the contestants, falls in love with aide Mary Turner and her homemade corn muffins, and proposes to her.

In fact, he later proposes to her in 47 states where they campaign on the "love platform." The Gershwin brothers' wonderful songs, such as "Who Cares," "Love Is Sweeping the Country," and the inimitable "Of Thee I Sing" add romance and merriment to the show, which is a real crowd-pleaser.

The first act overshadows the second act, and some judicious cutting (not the music, please) would have improved both. In the subplot, the winner of the earlier Miss White House Contest has sued for breach of contract, but that gets straightened out in Act II in the White House by the arrival of twins to the First Lady and a general flourish of trumpets and oompah of drums.

Among the others in the lively, talented cast are Lauren Mitchell as a fetching, funny Mary Turner who becomes First Lady; Arena's formidable Richard Bauer as Mathew Arnold Fulton; David Marks as the eminently forgettable vice president Alexander Throttlebottom; Candace Evans as a smart-mouthed chambermaid; Richard Dix as Senator Carver Crocket Jones; Keith Savage who dances and sings up a storm as Sam Jenkins, and Jeffery V. Thompson as Francis S. Gilhooley.

"Of Thee I Sing" is directed in a lilting, nostalgic style by Arena's Artistic Director Douglas C. Wager, who is backed up by Marcia Milgrim Dodge's energetic choreography (lots of flashy tapping), by Zack Brown's colorful 1930s set design, and William Huckaby's winning musical direction. The Gershwins' glorious score is played by three accomplished pianists: George Fulginits-Shakar, Bob Tartaglia, and Mr. Huckaby.

* "Of Thee I Sing" continues at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater until Nov. 22.

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