Chorus pro Musica wraps season with Gershwin’s rarely heard, political musical

May 14, 2017 at 11:34 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Margot Rood and David McFerrin in Chorus Pro Musica's concert performance of Gershwin's "Of Thee I Sing." Photo: Sam Brewer

Margot Rood and David McFerrin in Chorus Pro Musica’s concert performance of Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing.” Photo: Sam Brewer

 When Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing was premiered in 1931, the United States was mired in a crisis. The Great Depression raged, and the recent ballyhoo about the Sacco and Vanzetti case made immigration, anarchism, and the death penalty household topics. A presidential election was on the horizon, which, as history would show, would transform the role of government in economic affairs and the face of the Democratic Party.

What George Gershwin and his brother Ira offered in this time was a musical that took a satirical look at presidential politics. And its story of a scandalous love triangle between the president and two women has, especially in recent decades, made it a case of art imitating life.

Saturday night at Arlington’s Town Hall, Chorus pro Musica, led by Jamie Kirsch, performed a semi-staged rendition of the work to draw its season to a conclusion.

The story, which won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1932, deals more with broken promises and jilted brides than sexual deviancy. John P. Wintergreen is an unlikely candidate for president. He is a bachelor, and his committee formulates a plan to marry him off to Diana Devereaux, who wins a nationwide contest set up to search for a bride. Wintergreen, meanwhile, meets Mary Turner, a down-home girl who can make corn muffins. Wintergreen wins the election in a landslide and marries Turner, but Miss Devereaux, hungry for justice after being jilted, stirs up a controversy. The Senate votes to impeach Wintergreen over the issue, but Mary stops the session by revealing she is pregnant. In the end, all are happy. Wintergreen retains the presidency, Mary has twins, and Devereaux has paired up with Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom, who jokingly fills in for a task that the president is unable to complete.

Gershwin’s score has as many gags as the dialogue. Tuneful and bouncing with rhythm, the music quotes a number of well-known tunes, such as Stars and Stripes Forever, Columbia, Gem of the Ocean, and his own American in Paris.

Kirsch led a performance finely tuned to Gershwin’s style, and members of Chorus pro Musica performed many of the secondary characters in the story. The acting was capable, but the singing was excellent. “Wintergreen for President,” the opening number, moved with jovial romp. The women of the ensemble, some of whom were dressed in 1930s style costumes, sang brightly in “Who is the Lucky Girl to Be” and “Love is Sweeping the Country.” Nine singers brought a cartoonish glee to their roles as justices of the Supreme Court.

The lead roles featured some of the best singers in Boston. As Wintergreen, David McFerrin sang with a smooth tone and charming grace. Margot Rood (not “Margaret” as printed in the program) sang the role of Mary Turner, bringing a fine, old-Broadway style to the role. The couple sang a heart-warming rendition of “Of Thee I Sing,” which brought both acts to a close.

As Diana Devereaux, mezzo-soprano Christina English brought a sultry presence and gentle bluesy quality to her brief solo spotlights. Scott Muldoon made for an aptly bumbling but affable Alexander Throttlebottom, a speaking role.

There were a few moments of imprecision in the performance. In the finale to Act 1, the chorus drowned out Wintergreen’s singing, and the quick-changing tempos of the finale of Act 2 resulted in some tentativeness in the chorus.

But elsewhere the singing was crisp and clear and allowed for Ira Gershwin’s lyrics to induce laughs. In “The Illegitimate Daughter,” the French Ambassador, played by Dan Malis, revealed that Devereaux is the illegitimate daughter of the illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon.

The orchestra played Gershwin’s score with a buoyant quality, sounding with the pomp of a town band where appropriate. Matthew McMahan’s stage directions used the limited stage and floor space to tell a briskly moving and hilarious story to send listeners home with a spring in their step.

Chorus pro Musica will open its 2017-2018 season with the world premiere of Andy Vores’ In Childhood’s Thicket on November 5 at Tufts University’s Distler Hall.


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