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If the Presidents could sing to us now.

October 6, 2013

Presidential suite poster

What if Presidents having shed their mortal coil could speak to us now? Better still, what if they could sing to us? Sophisticated Rouge Media takes that concept and puts it on stage with Presidential Suite!

On its surface, it seems simple, until you think about it. How does one go about bringing to life iconic figures, what would they say, how would they act? Can you breathe life into those long past? Writers Matthew Hoffman and William Norett took up that challenge, and the answer is maybe.

The idea comes off silly when you think about it. The execution is silly as well, though that serves a purpose. It creates a juxtaposition. Leading with a silly concept, and over the top portrayals of the Presidents, allows the theme and moral to be sold to the audience. The theme, redemption, the moral, we all might not hold up to scrutiny when viewed through distant eyes.

The show opens to Doris (Kim Reed) singing the rehearsal introduction for MVP Pageant (Most Valuable President). Doris is a historian, and some sort of Medium. Able to channel the Presidents, giving them form and substance. Though this is never fully explained, making it difficult to substitute the reality on stage, for our personal realities.

The show itself takes place during the final rehearsal of the MVP Pageant at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. As the opening scene progresses eight Presidents make their way on stage. They are the final eight, having beaten out their fellow Commanders in Chief prior to the show. The Presidents make their way on stage and strike a commanding pose. Doris continues her opening number (pushing FDR’s (John Eddings) wheelchair out of her way), a variation on a Pageant theme, with emphasis on politics, with a dash of satire.

jeffersonScene one comes to a close, and a bit of chaos breaks out. Lorraine (Shae Wilson) the stage manager and Kevin (Adam Neubauer) Doris‘ assistant come on stage to attend the Presidents, and Doris. It’s opening night, and the Presidents, not used to appearing in the lime light aren’t quite used to hitting their queues. As Kevin, Lorraine, and Doris interact with the Presidents we get to know them as people. Thomas Jefferson (Matthew Hoffman) can’t stop hitting on Lorraine in a very antiquarian fashion. Lincoln (Edgar Alen Poe IV) seems quite aware he is one of the most beloved Presidents, and odds on favorite to win the Pageant at that. He tries to hide this with faux humility, though at times it’s hard to buy what he is selling.

Enter the drama! Each President wants to win the title of Most Valuable President. For some it’s a chance to reinvent themselves, tell lesser known sides of their lives. For others, just the thrill of claiming victory is all the motivation required. Theodore Roosevelt (Alex Walters), is ever the tough man, wanting to conquer any challenge that comes his way. While Truman (Irwin Moskowitz), seems unsure of himself.

Throughout the night their personalities solidify. Through carefully placed quotes, and the talent each becomes real. They act both as you would expect them to, and not. Being the American Presidents, one would expect a level of dignity, and poise. At times they are downright undignified. Each taking offence at the smallest thing.

At the conclusion of the show, this is seen as part of the juxtaposition, though in the moment it seems off. Appearing on Live TV has, apparently, awakened a prima donna in each. Couple that with the larger than life personalities required to become a President, and you have the makings of a dramatic musical. Andrew Jackson (Bradley Thomas Kuykendall) notorious for dueling can’t help but draw his musket at the slightest offense. To the point where Lorraine must confiscate the weapon. This allows for quite a few one liners about Liberty. Act one draws to a close, with a bit of a shock. Lincoln is shot, again!

While the premise is a bit hard to buy; the theme and moral become evident in song. Several of the Presidents have solos, in which they show a more frail, unsure side. They wonder if they have done the right thing, or if they can live with the weight of their decisions. In his song Nixon (Steve Nevil), manages to teach each President about the price of the office, using his own shortcomings as example. After the Presidents have grown, they manage to come together, solve the mystery, and continue on with the Pageant in a dignified manner. On one hand, seeing characters grow on stage is a joy to watch. The idea that these men would need to grow in their afterlife, seems a bit Ham-Handed. The murder mystery seems more like a Scooby Doo mystery, even in the way it’s solved. It is a joy to see the Presidents grow as characters though, especially Nixon. Which leaves me with mixed feelings. Is forced growth for the sake of growth, really growth?teddy

Aside from the premise not quite hitting the mark there were a few other issues. Sitting in the back row, I couldn’t hear anything sung from center stage. I could only hear the verse when sung from far left or right. While looking at the audience, others were leaning to the left or right. Apparently straining, as the cast moved about the stage. The instrumentals also overpowered the vocals, to the point that what I heard seemed muddled.

In a musical, when one can’t hear all the lines, you feel left out. Especially when those lines are peppered with morals or satire. You hear the audience laugh, and you want to laugh as well, but can’t. There were also a few flubbed lines, when spoken these can be overcome, and were. When they occur in verse it has an effect of snapping you out of the song.

I do have hopes that this will be overcome. It was opening night, and audio issues can be corrected. Each actor was quite strong, and in command of their character from opening to close. The premise and cohesion were where Presidential Suite fell short. If the actors can come together, and gel, they will do quite well on stage.

My apprehension aside Presidental Suite had it’s highlights, and that is due to the actors. Earlier I mentioned that Truman (Moskowitz) was unsure of himself, this was portrayed quite well by Irwin. Irwin was able to command the stage, and yet at the same time shrink himself down to fit the diminutive nature of Truman. Truman was a President crushed by the weight of the office. To be able to hold center stage, and shrink the character down to a claustrophobic level takes a good measure of talent. Jefferson (Hoffman) came across as a man out of time. If anything sold the premise of transporting the Presidents as they were, in their prime to this time, it was Hoffman‘s portrayal. Hoffman comfortably flowed from complex line to the next, while maintain the mannerisms of someone slightly put off by such strange surroundings. Theodore Roosevelt (Walters) was able to transition through the various aspects of good old Teddy. From jovial, to one who could stand his ground for days. As well as portraying the more intelligent side of his personality, helping solve the mystery. Nixon (Nevil) was fun to watch on stage. Regan (Jim Eshom) had amazing control of his body. showing the slight shake that one develops with age and an addled mind. Even is one liners were delivered in just the right time to break the tension. Above all each actor was able to master the background and the foreground. Through much of the musical the Presidents remained on stage, even when not the focus of the scene. They were able to become part of the background, adding layers of complexity to the scene, without taking away from the focus. This isn’t easy to do, and for the entire cast to pull it off was a boon, in a musical that didn’t quite hit home for me.

In the end, the acting was superb, and in hindsight the theme and moral of the story was intriguing. The manner in which the theme was delivered just seemed off, as did the songs. While they maintained the theme, they didn’t connect to each other well.

When one goes to the Theatre the stage becomes reality. Nothing exists, but what is on stage. If they say up is down, up is down during the duration. They weren’t able to sell that this time. For the entire premise to be grasped only in hindsight makes for a mediocre night.

I have faith the cohesion of the cast will improve, they are all talented actors. Audio issues can be fixed as well. If one is willing to sit through two acts for the premise to manifest in hindsight, this musical might be for you.

 GW and Jefferson

Presidential Suite (book by Matthew Hoffman and William Norrett, Directed by William Norret, Lyrics and score by David P. Johnson) appears at the Whitmore-Lindley Theater Center, and runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through October 27th.

For more information please visit www.plays411.net

All Photos Credit: William Norrett

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