George and Ira Gershwin’s 1931 Broadway hit Of Thee I Sing, and its 1933 sequel Let ’em Eat Cake, stylistically feel very much of their time. And yet Opera North in its current touring productions has been able to play them straight down the board.
Indeed, deliberate updates or ‘post-modern’ slants on the material are unnecessary because the original jokes are as relevant today as when they were written. The light-hearted plots may epitomise good old-fashioned entertainment, but amidst their exaggerated forms are revealing commentaries on how the American (or indeed any) political process works.
In Of Thee I Sing John P Wintergreen runs for President on a ticket of ‘love’, an issue that he believes everyone will embrace. He organises a federal beauty contest in which he will marry the winner if elected, and then appeals to the electorate not to keep two lovers apart. The only trouble is that by the time the judges have chosen the winner, Diana Devereaux from Louisiana, he has fallen in love with Mary Turner because she makes superlative corn muffins.
We as the modern day electorate can relate to being appealed to through style, sound bites and ‘issues’ that are of no consequence, and the shows have a particularly pertinent ring at present when once again mounting debt and recession face America and the world. A few modern jokes are inserted such as placards supporting Wintergreen simply reading ‘W’, but these are the exception, and humorously mocking the French, for example, was clearly as much in vogue then as now.
In Let ’em Eat Cake Wintergreen is voted out of office after his first term for failing to tackle the depression. He then, however, leads a successful revolution and establishes himself as dictator of America. When, however, the Supreme Court loses a ‘double or nothing’ baseball match against the League of Nations which sees all debts owed to America cancelled, Wintergreen’s popularity plummets and he faces execution.
In this even more far fetched show, the satire is not quite as biting and the music slightly less accomplished. Nevertheless, the plot is highly entertaining and hearing several songs that feature in the first show again feels like meeting old friends.
The Opera North cast did not seem entirely comfortable embracing the Broadway style. The chorus dancing was seldom challenging, although the numbers were injected with enough panache to ensure that the performers’ varying abilities were successfully masked. Some singers who clearly had fine opera voices also struggled to project in this lighter style, and annunciation in several fast passages could have been stronger.
With the shows directed by Caroline Gawn and the orchestra conducted by Wyn Davies, the best performance came from Steven Beard as Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom whose comic turns were priceless. William Dazeley as Winterton was a smooth actor and slick mover, but his pleasing voice was lacking in the lower register. Conversely, as Diana Devereaux, Heather Shipp’s singing was highly engaging, but it felt as if she had to try too hard to present a caricature of seductiveness.
But it is good to see Opera North not merely sticking to what it knows best, and trying material such as this. These two Gershwin shows may not present the company at its best, but it is enjoyable to watch Opera North having such fun with them. This is the UK premiere of Let ’em Eat Cake, and performances of either show are rare, so if you think they may interest you, be sure to catch them while you can.
After the Sadler’s Wells run ends on 21 February 2009, ‘Of Thee I Sing’ and ‘Let ’em Eat Cake’ will appear at the Lowry, Salford Quays, Manchester, 27-28 February, and then at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, 6-7 March.