Once again, in terms of political theater, the president has managed to flummox both critics and angels alike. Reviews of his State of the Union Address have been more mixed than a Kansas Cuisinart stuck in a tornado on puree. Notwithstanding the ritualistic 79 applause breaks by his geek chorus, the production could best be described as a work-in-progress. Nowhere near Pulitzer Prize luncheon territory; but not destined for a trip to Joe Allen's flop wall either. Think "Tony & Tina's Wedding" with added intellectual posturing.
Producers of the rival big show in town, "Burning Down the House" immediately dismissed Obama's script as more radical agit- prop dramaturgy, but most independent scribes saw it as an old-fashioned sports melodrama featuring a beleaguered coach giving a locker room halftime speech invoking the spirit of his old friend Sputnik while exhorting the team to pull together and defeat the villainous adversary, Doctor Deficit. Lesson being, if you're going to borrow, steal from the classics.
Production values remained high with costumes and sets ably handled, but the choreography was listless and hackneyed. After the huge pre-show publicity push, the cast opening seat scramble staging seemed silly and superfluous, and as the night wore on, the ensemble's dance steps deteriorated into a space best described as clumsy and clichéd. "Us good. Him bad." Yeah. Yeah. Been there. Seen that.
There were fleeting moments of mad genius as the president flashed his trademark Messianic zeal but all momentum visibly fizzled whenever he tap-danced around specifics in wooden numbers that reeked of the fuzzy and familiar: "The State of the Union is Strong but Could be Stronger," "Investment is Like Spending Only Better," and what was surely intended to be the rousing curtain closer, "Win the Future." Didn't exactly bring down the house but backers have to be encouraged by the large percentage of audience members humming the tune on the way out and in the days since.
Only registered ogres could deny the overall vaguely uplifting feel of the creaky vehicle. And they did. The FOO, Friends of Ogres (Republican Party), responded to the blurry optimism with not one but two overly scripted political procedurals, as their rising stars, Paul Ryan and Michele Bachmann, stared variously into and nearby cameras spewing enough doom and gloom to make Arthur Miller look like Neil Simon. Commedia Dell' Arte with a scythe. King Lear without the happy ending.
On reflection, Obama's subtextual message still remains more elusive than opening night tickets to Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. A shame to see all that good pre-show buzz so extravagantly wasted. Ultimately, it's a wash, buddy. Neither a boffo smash, nor a miserable dud or pandering tear-jerker, although one could be spotted sitting behind the president. The whole experience was like kissing your sister or a rainstorm in Hawaii or doing yard work on a good hair day.
It is doubtful in these quarters the show will be able to sprout legs and spawn any road company action. And spin offs and sequels: out of the question, right now. Then again, the Tonys are lurking and prospects for an extended run could hinge on whether that "Win the Future" theme is catchy enough to snatch the show an Original Score nomination. Considering the olden-timey Reaganesque/Clintonian vibe given off by the whole thing, it's a virtual lock for Best Revival.
San Francisco based political comedian, Will Durst, writes sometimes: this is one of them.
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