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Theatre in Review: How to Steal an Election (York Theatre Co./Theatre at St. Jean's)

Alex Joseph Grayson and (background) Jason Graae. Photo: Rider Foster

In How to Steal an Election, Calvin Coolidge sings. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

First, the good news: In another sign of life returning to normal, York Theatre Company has brought back its popular Musicals in Mufti concert productions of musical theatre rarities. As City Center's similar Encores program remains preoccupied with established hits, the Mufti series continues to hunt down the most exotic titles, giving us the blessed opportunity to experience shows we've only read about and have always wanted to see.

In the case of How to Steal an Election, the blessing is mixed. This satirical revue, which ran for three months Off Broadway before and after Election Day 1968, was considered weak stuff even then. The New York Times review called it "timely and pleasant," adding, "but it won't deliver anyone's vote." It's a verdict that casts a long shadow: In an era of presidential mug shots, Capitol riots, and the bizarre antics of Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, this fifty-five-year-old spoof struggles to keep up. If you're eager to be reminded of the Kennedy family's nepotistic practices or Lyndon Johnson's habit of picking up his pet beagles by their ears, this is the show for you. If you're bewildered by punch lines about Spiro T. Agnew and the credibility gap, you've dropped in at the wrong polling station. And remember: Eugene McCarthy has nothing to do with Kevin McCarthy.

The book, by William F. Brown (who, a few years later, would hit the jackpot with The Wiz), posits a pair of Now Generation protestors who, having faced police brutality at the Democratic convention in Chicago, are taken up by Silent Cal for schooling in the great American tradition of hot-wiring the vote. The lessons are cartoonish, didactic, and rarely insightful. Smear campaigns are evoked, one of them stooping to besmirch Fala, FDR's Scottish terrier. William Henry Harrison's fading appeal is revived by spinmeisters adopting the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too," never mind that it alludes to an ugly rout of Native Americans. Against Abraham Lincoln's express orders, campaign manager David Davis hands out political appointments like candy, thus securing his boss' nomination. Millionaire kingmaker Joe Kennedy buys votes by the bushel in Chicago, teaming up with the local mafioso to secure his son's victory. This is probably the show's nerviest bit; in 1968, one went after the Kennedys at one's own risk, thanks to the recent martyrdoms of John and Robert.

Each of these episodes is presented in the sketchiest possible manner and with a minimum of inspiration, featuring gags that could use a nice long rest. "Have you ever tried to move a sitting Congressman?" Coolidge wonders, trying to make like Will Rogers. Tilden calls the New York Times "that awful scandal sheet" because it doesn't endorse him. (That probably produced a few nervous titters in 1968.) Referencing a deal to name the scandal-plagued Simon Cameron Secretary of the Treasury, Davis comments that it is tantamount to "turning an alcoholic loose in a distillery." Lines like these wouldn't get you through the New Hampshire primary.

Still, Mufti productions generally function as clearing houses for young talents and if you are committed to checking out this curio, you'll find yourself in good company. Emma Degerstedt's supple, rangy vocal instrument burnishes "Comes the Right Man," a ballad about candidate-picking that doubles nicely as a torch song. Alex Joseph Grayson, who earned plenty of attention in last season's revival of Parade lends his outstanding presence and rich, resonant tenor to "Nobody's Listening," a bluesy, soulful lament that could have broken out onto the pop charts had How to Steal an Election originally lasted a little longer. (The songwriter, Oscar Brand, a wheel in the folk music world, was fluent in a variety of styles, even if the show's lyrics are only so-so.) Ensemble members Courtney Arango, Kelly Berman, and Drew Tanabe make lively contributions, especially when executing Victoria Castillo's exuberant choreography. As Coolidge, Jason Graae goes about his master-of-ceremonies role in his best avuncular fashion but, burdened with thin material and substandard songs, he must work hard to little effect.

Joseph Hayward's staging doesn't really capture the ironic distance between these frisky onstage doings and the overall grim prognosis for democracy but, since the impossible Mufti schedule allows for only five days of rehearsals and three previews, his work here is surprisingly polished. (This version condenses the two-act original into ninety fast-moving minutes.) Ken Billington's lighting design is full of attractive things. Peter Brucker's projections, which take in various historical figures, are fun, and his sound design is bright and thoroughly intelligible. If How to Steal an Election is an unlikely vote-getter, it will at least satisfy the curiosity of musical theatre fans who make up the York's subscriber base. But Calvin Coolidge singing? I can't vote for that. --David Barbour

(28 August 2023)

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