By Donna Herman
The book and lyrics to the new musical “Votes” by Jacqueline S. Salit and the late Fred Newman at the Castillo Theatre through May 22nd, are built upon a previous musical “The Last Temptation of William Jefferson” with book and lyrics by Fred Newman also produced at the Castillo in 1999. “Last Temptation” explores the journey of a fictional first couple in the White House from the radical 1960’s to the last scandal ridden days of their pinnacle of power in 1999. “Votes” picks up the story in 2016 since the couple have left the White House to see what has happened to them and our country in the intervening years.
According to her bio in the playbill, Jacqueline S. Salit is an “agitator and “outsider’ political strategist.” A note from her explains that she was a fan of “Last Temptaion,” and decided to repurpose it by literally taking the original, cutting it up and depositing it within a new play written and set 17 years later. Voila, flashbacks.
I’m sure Ms. Salit is a fine political strategist. She has not, however, written a play here so much as a political attack ad against politics and politicians in general. Her new part of “Votes” is set in a hotel room on an imagined election eve 2016, with Mrs. Jefferson (Lisa Ann Wright-Mathew) – a thinly veiled Hillary Clinton – on track to win the election and break the glass ceiling. The original play flashbacks provide what few plot points and human insight there is in this mess. There is no real character development, no understanding of what events lead from then to now, and no knowledge of how songs are supposed to work in a musical with one exception, when William Jefferson (Wayne Miller) sings “Another Day.” Finally, we have a song that establishes character and an emotional arc. Mr. Miller’s fine voice and performance actually touches us with something human in an otherwise overwrought and off-putting political diatribe. For two hours we are subject to the astonishing information that power corrupts and all politicians are crooked, really?
The action of the piece jumps between a post-Lewinsky Oval Office with an on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown Mrs. Jefferson and unrepentant Mr. Jefferson; and the near future election eve hotel room, with Mrs. Jefferson and her estranged friend and conscience Vivan Traveler (Debbie Buchsbaum) as they wait for election results. In the Oval Office we see a power couple who have lost the idealism of their 1960’s youth with no idea how to proceed. In the near future we see a barely lifelike couple with no idea how or why they got there. It feels like everyone in the room has a flamethrower and is using it. There are glimpses of standard dramatic idioms like plot, motivation, and character in the flashback scenes from the original, but in the present day snide innuendo, and tired political truisms take the place of meaningful dialogue. Wayne Miller and Lisa Ann Wright-Mathew as the Jeffersons struggle to make their characters believable at all, Mr. Miller with more success, although admittedly Ms. Wright-Mathew has a much tougher job with the material she’s given. And unfortunately, the director, Gabrielle L. Kurland, hasn’t brought much to the party with a flagging pace and uninspired staging.
I understand that the Castillo Theater was founded in the 1980’s by political activists/artists with a social and political mission. There isn’t a person in this country, no matter whether they lean left, right or not at all, that doesn’t understand that our political system is f***ed up. This is not news, and the information, by itself, doesn’t move anything along. Theater is supposed to shine a light on what makes people do the things they do and why. Drama, comedy, or musical – all theater has to get us to see something differently. That means exploring the humanity behind our actions in a real way. If you want to make a difference Castillo, you can’t give us regurgitated material like this and expect anyone to come see it much less be moved to action.
Votes – Written by Jacqueline S. Salit and Fred Newman, Composed by Annie Roboff, Directed by Gabrielle L. Kurlander
WITH: Lisa Ann Wright-Mathew (Melanie Jefferson), Wayne Miller (William Jefferson), Debbie Buchsbaum (Vivian Traveler), Bryan Austerman (Brett), Tori Ogunsanya (Maria), Frances McGarry (Mrs. Shrunk), Art McFarland (Newscaster-Video), Gloria Strickland (Betty-Offstage Voice), Hannah Gosling Goldsmith (Wardrobe Assitant-Video)
Sound design by David Belmont; stage manager, Lindsay Bleile; video design by Nathan Carpenter; assistant director, Mary Fridley; costume designer, Kerry Gibbons; lighting by Nick Kolin; choreography by Lonne Moretton; producer, John Rankin III; sets by Miguel Romero; musical director, Michael Walsh. At the Castillo Theatre, Artistic Director, Dan Friedman; Managing Director, Diane Stiles, Technical Director, Joseph Spirito; 543 W. 42nd Street, 212-941-1234, www.castillo.org. Through May 22nd