Strike Up the Band | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Strike Up the Band 

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Pegasus Players

at the Ivanhoe Theater

"We hope there'll be no other war / But if we are forced into one-- / The flag that we'll be fighting for / Is the Red and White and Blue one!" So goes the verse from George and Ira Gershwin's ever-popular march "Strike Up the Band," as heard in the 1940 Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie of the same name--the perfect sentiment for an audience psyching itself up for confrontation with the fascist axis. Less well-known is the original lyric, penned in 1927: "We're in a bigger, better war / For your patriotic pastime. / We don't know what we're fighting for-- / But we didn't know the last time!"

Fresh in its impudence as well as unfamiliarity, this little-known quatrain is one of several discoveries offered by the recently restored stage musical Strike Up the Band, a vastly different animal from the film. A collaboration between songwriters George and Ira Gershwin, playwright George S. Kaufman, and producer Edgar Selwyn, this antiwar operetta epitomized Kaufman's famous dictum that "satire is what closes Saturday night": despite critical admiration, it was a commercial flop in its Philadelphia tryout and never made it to Broadway. A considerably revised version, with a new script by Kaufman's Animal Crackers collaborator Morrie Ryskind, was a moderate New York success in 1930 as a vehicle for burlesque comedians Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough but didn't show much staying power without them. Meanwhile, the 1927 work went into the history books as a succes d'estime--a term Kaufman once sarcastically defined as "a success that runs out of steam." Only in the mid-1980s was Gershwin estate archivist Tommy Krasker able to reconstruct the long-lost work, thanks to the 1982 discovery of a New Jersey warehouse full of manuscripts.

The 1920s critics cheered a work that was artistically innovative and risky: an attempt to take musical comedy beyond its then-established function as escapist entertainment and into the realm of sociopolitical commentary. Though Strike Up the Band's characters were shaped in the standard molds of comic operetta--fatuous romantic leads, perky second bananas, buffoonish authority figures, and bubbly choristers--their dialogue had much more bite than the usual glib inanities used to set up song-and-dance numbers. Kaufman's play was extraordinarily tart for its time, jabbing at such targets as warmongering capitalists, self-serving politicians, incompetent military leaders, and a gullible public easily manipulated by appeals to patriotic fervor. Moreover the Gershwins' score, inspired by The Mikado and other Gilbert and Sullivan works, used solo and choral singing to propel plot and define character. If Strike Up the Band had opened on Broadway as planned, it would have upstaged that year's hit Show Boat as a pioneering effort, music and text integrated into a dramatic whole.

Much of what was daring in 1927 seems tame by today's standards, of course. Kaufman's sensibility was shaped by World War I ("the war to end all wars"); ours is shaped by the Holocaust and the atomic bomb, Vietnam and Watergate. Yet in Pegasus Players' likable revival, offered as the inaugural production of the newly reopened Ivanhoe Theater, Strike Up the Band remains a diverting piece with some terrific music, most of it new to modern ears, and an occasional surprising comic sting transcending the politics of its authors' time and our own.

Originally intended to parody corporate America's anti-Bolshevik paranoia, the plot concerns a trade conflict between the United States and that notoriously militant foreign power Switzerland. American cheese mogul Horace J. Fletcher, anxious to crush competition, persuades his politically connected pal Colonel Holmes to help him win Congress's backing for military action. Fletcher even offers to bankroll the endeavor and split the profits with the government; the Swiss agree to war if it will be fought on their soil as a tourist attraction. With Fletcher's warbling workers as a public-relations army, the Horace J. Fletcher Memorial War receives massive public support; the lone conscientious objector is journalist Jim Townsend, who's discovered that Fletcher's cheese is made from Grade B, not Grade A, milk. Labeled a traitor for his dissent (and his preference for Swiss watches), Jim loses the affection of his beloved Joan--Fletcher's spirited socialite daughter--until he leads the American army to victory with the aid of the mysterious madcap George Spelvin, a clown-of-all-trades who turns up variously as a telegram delivery boy, a waiter, and a general. Additional subplots concern the romances between Fletcher and the dotty, doughty society matron Mrs. Draper, and between Draper's daughter Anne and Timothy Harper, the Fletcher factory's tap-dancing foreman, who leads the company in the snappy title tune.

Though most of the interplay between the lead couples--the comic dancers Timothy and Anne and the more lyrical Jim and Joan--is typical musical-comedy fare, it's elevated by songs like "17 and 21" (a clever spoof of the American obsession with youth), the surging "Soon" (interpolated from Band's 1930 rewrite), and "The Man I Love" (written for but cut from the 1924 Lady, Be Good! and inserted into the 1927 Band at Selwyn's insistence). One of the Gershwins' greatest torch songs, it's sung here with a pavanelike stateliness that's an illuminating change from the usual bluesy interpretation. Less well-known are the extended operetta passages--cascades of melodic invention that combine Gilbert and Sullivan elegance with a jittery jazziness--and a pair of charming ballads: a light comic ode to urban sprawl called "Meadow Serenade" (outfitted with a verse by veteran Broadway composer Burton Lane to replace Gershwin's lost introduction) and the exquisite "Homeward Bound," a remarkable blend of Irish-tenor serenade and springy, Joplin-esque ragtime that in 1927 was a virtuoso set piece for vocalist Morton Downey, father of the talk-show host.

Much of the script is formulaic screwball comedy from the playwright who scripted the Marx Brothers' first hits; indeed, Spelvin's wacky antics are very much in the Groucho mold, and Mrs. Draper is close kin to the doyennes played by Groucho's perennial foil Margaret Dumont. Some of Kaufman's writing is flawed, especially in the choppy second act; if Strike hadn't closed so early the problems might have been solved, but they weren't. Yet every so often the script delivers a zinger that still rings nastily true. Praising the returning doughboys for winning the war, Fletcher expresses his regret that there aren't any jobs for them (automation, you know); Colonel Holmes attributes his reputation as a presidential confidant to discretion, then goes around hawking his "I was there" memoirs. And a nation doesn't have to be at war to be ripe for the smear-and-scare tactics of businessmen like Fletcher and his political and media allies--look at the insurance industry's and congressional Republicans' personally and ideologically charged campaign against health-care reform.

These resonances could use more exploring in Pegasus's genial but too dutiful production. Played on John Paoletti's uncharacteristically clunky, uncolorful set (a wall, a doorway, a balcony, and a couple of staircases, blandly lit by T.J. Gerckens), William Pullinsi's staging and Andrew J. Lupp's choreography coast along with the material, resulting in a pleasant period piece that never bursts with the excitement of first-rate theater. The young non-Equity company, lacking the depth or precision to make the play sparkle, delivers a show that's diverting but not dazzling. The most disappointing element is the competent but unlustrous band, whose overreliance on synthesizers comes off as cheesy in the more lyrical passages; a two-piano arrangement, like the one used in Remains Theatre's 1992 revival of Band's successor Of Thee I Sing, might have produced a more rich, Gershwin-like accompaniment for the generally well-sung songs. Elizabeth Yeats as Joan, Matt McDonald as Fletcher, and Michael Hance as the "Homeward Bound" soloist leave the strongest musical impressions. Marc Silvia's chameleonic characterization of Spelvin--a sort of three-dimensional Bugs Bunny with his Noo Yawk accent and his predilection for scattershot imitations (Groucho, Harpo, Phil Silvers)--gets the lion's share of the evening's laughs, though McDonald's seasick courtship of Lisa K. Wyatt's Billie Burke-ish Mrs. Draper is also amusing.

If Strike Up the Band isn't the major event it could have been in more adventurous hands, it's still an entertaining look at a little-known American musical-theater legend. And as long as special interests continue to manipulate public emotions for private profit, it'll remain a timely work.


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