If you were writing a musical about the eight years of the Clinton administration what would you feature? Monica? Check. Kenneth Starr? Check. Newt? Check. And a cigar. Check.
Two Australian brothers, Paul and Michael Hodge, checked all the boxes and disclaim in the program notes that they are not writing history. They are not. They offer up a funny, (if not clever), coarse (if not entirely crude) two hours of obvious gags and adolescent hyperbole, all set to music. It has the feel of a revue, not a musical. That is, it goes on for two hours but it doesn’t go anywhere.
CLINTON at the Alice Griffin Theater on Theater Row, has more than a few laugh-out-loud moments. Add to that, there are some substantial production values. When the full cast parses the Starr Commission’s definition of sexual activity in song and then punctuates it with a Macarena-like dance, you get a full-fledged production number you can nearly walk out singing.
The Hodges found Bill Clinton such a dichotomous personality they literally split him in two: the hapless womanizer and the President. Duke LaFoon plays “Billy” with an oozing, loose-limbed charm, while Karl Kenzler, as “WJ,” combines practical politics with a modicum of dignity. The two occupy the same space and only occasionally step on each other’s lines. Alet Taylor plays Hillary with conviction and a big voice. She starts angry and stays angry and, while we cannot blame her for being angry, she’s not much fun to watch.
Monica was played so broadly in real life there wasn’t much more the actor, Natalie Gallo, could bring to her, ‘though Gallo’s singing and dancing are certainly added value. In fact, none of the women play anything more than scolds or sluts.
Tom Souhrada, as a cartoon version of Newt Gingrich, is entertaining in his way-over-the-top, hand-rubbing malevolence. Unfortunately, much of what he had to say/sing was lost off-mike. Also, more than once, actors had to chase down their lighting. Of course, while spontaneity may be the upside with the NY Musical Theatre Festival — of which CLINTON is a part — the downside is limited rehearsal and blocking time and only limited performances. (The last of those this week.)
The break out character in CLINTON is Kevin Zak as Kenneth Starr. His ruffled hair and creepy demeanor suggest the eccentric character Starr actually presented in the 1990s Watergate/Troopergate/Travelgate years. But when Zak does a delicious starr-turn (sorry) as a strutting gay stripper, he brings down the house and you wait for his next entrance.
One exchange between the two Bills on the heels of Starr’s OMG performance suggests the tenor of the show:
WJ (to Billy): Why is Starr gay in our show?
Billy: He said he’s gonna fuck us.
There are the inevitable ‘dick’ jokes, many of them fired off by John Gregorio, as political swami, Dick Morris. (“Everybody likes a little dick.”) Gregorio does double duty as Morris and the archetypical newsman covering the Clintons. He plays Morris as an opportunistic loon (okay, perhaps that is a touch of realism). He plays the journalist with all the smug silliness we have come to recognize on news sets in recent years. Gregorio scores on both counts.
CLINTON is light entertainment of a naughty, schoolboy sort. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
CLINTON – book by Michael Hodge & Paul Hodge. Music & Lyrics by Paul Hodge. Directed by Adam Arian.
WITH: Duke LaFoon (Billy), Karl Kenzler (WJ), Alet Taylor (Hillary), Tom Souhrada (Newt Gingrich), Kara Guy (Eleanor Roosevelt), Kevin Zak (Kenneth Starr), Natalie Gallo (Monica Lewinsky), John Gregorio (Dick Morris).
In the orchestra, musical director/Keys 1 James Dobinson assisted by Ari Rossen, Keys 2, Yuichi Hirakawa on drums and Jason Curry on reeds.
Ryan Conway at Davenport Theatrical is general manager. The company manager is Michael Cohen. Andrew Chandler is the technical director. Chris D’Angelo and Rebecca Woontner on light board and Jaime Torres handles wardrobe.
At the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Manhattan, through July 26th. Running time two hours with one intermission.