Politically themed musical theater can be a tricky proposition, even for the most gifted practitioners of the form.
But just in time for the inauguration of America's first black president, MusicalFare Theatre director Randall Kramer has struck gold with "American Rhapsody," a hastily but masterfully conceived revue about the progressive spirit of American music and politics.
"American Rhapsody" opened Wednesday at MusicalFare, replacing the planned musical "2 Pianos 4 Hands," which the theater scrapped due to casting problems. And the show, featuring the formidable talents of Kramer himself on piano and a tremendously gifted supporting cast, is far more apropos to MusicalFare's particular strengths.
The one-act revue is Kramer's gushing love letter to George Gershwin, with a gigantic CC to Barack Obama. It works on two equally compelling levels. First, it is a tightly constructed exploration of the early 20th century's underappreciated and revelatory music. And second, the show serves as a poignant statement about the inextricable links among American musical, racial and political progress. As the first significant theatrical response to November's historic election on a local stage, "American Rhapsody" happily lives up to its subject.
Kramer plays, not unbelievably, a classical pianist who is struggling with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." He enlists the help of a fellow piano player played by Tim White, who takes Kramer on a colorful tour of Gershwin's diverse influences. In the process of playing and exploring the great works of Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, W.C. Handy, Eubie Blake and others, Kramer learns that "it's what's behind the notes that really matters."
If that lesson seems a bit too pat in print, it goes down much more easily onstage, thanks in equal part to Kramer's playing and the skill and playfulness of the singers and dancers charged with interpreting the songs.
Due in part to Chris Schenk's uber-patriotic set and some slightly syrupy opening dialogue, things get off to a hokey start. But as soon as Kramer lays down the first notes to "Oh Susanna," the show kicks into gear. With minimal dialogue -- usually a sassy remark or two from White or a quote from a famous speech by Lincoln or Douglass -- the revue's strength comes largely from its focus on the music itself.
That music is augmented but not overpowered by pitch-perfect vocal interpretations and dancing from the consummate John Fredo and Loraine O'Donnell, along with the honed dancing skills of Jennifer Huffman and Immanuel Naylor.
Fredo's graceful and magnetic performances, on everything from "Swanee" to "Beale Street Blues," are worth the price of admission by themselves. He is a song and dance man to the letter, and one of MusicalFare's greatest assets. O'Donnell brings the house down with an earth-shattering rendition of Handy's "St. Louis Blues," also knocked out of the park by Kramer and offstage clarinetist Jim Runfola. Kramer's performance, from memory, of Gershwin's entire "Rhapsody in Blue" brings a phenomenal end to what was already a deeply engaging night of theater.
The choreography, by Fredo for his own numbers and John Lehrer -- especially the hilarious, beautifully executed dance by Huffman and Naylor set to Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag -- is excellent.
Schenk's red, white and blue set, while nicely constructed, hammers the patriotic point home with a little too much force. It becomes easy enough to ignore thanks to the strength of the material and performances.
Nov. 4, 2008, according to a sage piece of advice delivered by White, was the moment at which "the country finally caught up to its music." And it's lucky for us that Kramer was there to capture it.
WHAT: "American Rhapsody"
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
WHEN: Through Feb. 8
WHERE: MusicalFare Theatre, Daemen College, Amherst
TICKETS: $32 to $36INFO: 839-8540 or www.musicalfare.com