Irving Berlin's Mr. President Gets Twisted Off-Bway Beginning June 28

News   Irving Berlin's Mr. President Gets Twisted Off-Bway Beginning June 28 Gerard Alessandrini, the mind behind the perennial satiric revue, Forbidden Broadway, is planning to do to Irving Berlin's patriotic last musical, Mr. President, what FB does to the Great White Way — poke it in the eye, but lovingly.

Gerard Alessandrini, the mind behind the perennial satiric revue, Forbidden Broadway, is planning to do to Irving Berlin's patriotic last musical, Mr. President, what FB does to the Great White Way — poke it in the eye, but lovingly.

Alessandrini has permission from the Berlin and Russel-Crouse estates and The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization — which controls the rights to the little-known 1962 musical about the First Family — to tweak and rewrite the material for an Off-Broadway book musical. The show, still called Mr. President, will play in repertory at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre with Forbidden Broadway 2001: A Spoof Odyssey. Previews for Mr. President begin June 28 with an opening aimed at mid-August.

"It's a new book, completely new," Alessandrini told Playbill On-Line. "The original book [by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse] wasn't very political, and I think that may have been one of the reasons it didn't do well. It looked like it was supposed to be political satire or something that had to do with either the Eisenhowers or the Kennedys, and it really wasn't. It was more like a 'Father Knows Best,' and he just happened to be president — there's a lot of homespun problems, like who the daughter is dating and who the son is dating."

Alessandrini wrote a new libretto and changed about 60 percent of the lyrics, updating and making topical references. Five other Berlin songs from other sources are also used.

"I took it and made it completely contemporary and about the last election and what's going on now — I updated it," the writer-director said. "But I used most all the songs from Mr. President." Are the Clintons and the Bushes characters?

"I did the old high school thing. I just changed [names]: It's 'George Shrub' and 'Chillery Fenton,' that sort of thing," Alessandrini explained. "The story is sort of like we do with Forbidden Broadway: It's based on truth and then taken to wild extremes. It's not really at all the real story. It's sort of like an alternate universe of politics."

The interpolations are "God Bless America," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "This Is the Army," "Only for Americans" and "Shakin' the Blues Away." Alessandrini said he was careful not to use Call Me Madam or Annie Get Your Gun songs, which have lives in the contexts of those better known shows.

The cast of seven includes Whitney Allen, Jono Mainelli, Amanda Naughton, Michael West, Eric Jordan Young, Stuart Zagnit and Clif Thorn as Mr. President. Costumes are by Forbidden Broadway veteran designer Alvin Colt. Bryan Johnson designed sets and Marc Janowitz designed the lighting.

What's the style of the show?

"I can't really even call it political satire," Alessandrini said. "It's more Broadway satire, with the political being secondary. It's more like a showbiz-meets-politics musical. It tells a story in very musical comedy terms. There are a lot of musical comedy spoofs in it."

The idea for rejiggering Mr. President came up after the Forbidden Broadway team thought it might be fun to do a "bad musicals" tribute in the spirit of the successful Encores! series that celebrates overlooked or seldom-revived musicals from the past.

"It came up because we were talking about bomb Broadway musicals that nobody would ever do," he said. They jokingly called the idea "Gongcores!," a reference to "The Gong Show," the TV variety program with cheap acts. Alessandrini said he'd like to explore other seldom-performed properties and rewrite them.

Alessandrini shares direction and musical staging credit with John Znidarsic. The show is produced by John Freedson and Harriet Yellin.

Tickets are $45. Performance times for Mr. President, in rep with Forbidden Broadway, are 8:15 PM Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2:30 PM Wednesdays, 10:15 PM Fridays and 5 PM and 10:15 PM Saturdays. The Douglas Fairbanks Theatre is at 432 W. 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. For tickets, call (212) 239 6200.

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The original Mr. President starred Robert Ryan as the Commander in-Chief and Nanette Fabray as his First Lady. Joshua Logan directed the production. Anita Gillette played their daughter, who memorably sang the frisky, "The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous." The show is preserved on a cast album that was re-released on CD in the 1990s. Despite a $2.6 million advance, interest in the show disappeared after six months (the reviews were negative, as well) and the show closed in 1963 after 265 performances. Berlin would not write another new show for Broadway, although he did pen "An Old Fashioned Wedding" for a 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman.

— By Kenneth Jones