Political musical needs a little fixing up

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Michael Toscano

Grahame Chandler (played by Stephen Gregory Smith) plots with sister-in-law Violet (played by Christine Sherrill) to get his nephew (her son) nominated for president in Signature Theatre’s production of the musical The Fix.
Photo by Christopher Mueller

Don’t believe the advertising that says The Fix, now onstage at Signature Theatre, is a rock musical. It’s not. The music does range rather fluidly through a variety of 1960s-accented, middle-of-the-road pop genres, though, with some nice stops along the way at a couple of smoky blues numbers, lite jazz, some march-able anthems, and even some show-bizzy, tap-dancing music hall tunes.

The music is great, if sounding a bit dated at times. Fortunately for me, I don’t mind something dated if it’s good vintage, which much of this is.

Also don’t believe the promotional material that suggests this is some kind of revealing expose of modern political machinations and dynastic dynamics. It’s not. It is a re-working of material that has been explored ad nauseumin books, film, TV and on the stage for about six decades now.

Actually, the material about dynastic power plays goes all the way back to Macbeth. The characters are familiar cardboard cut-outs, propped up only by the prodigious talents of the powerful cast.

So here is what you should believe: You will probably enjoy the first act quite a bit. The music, the dancing, and the over-the-top performances blend into a pretty entertaining hour and ten minutes.

By the middle of the second act, however, you will begin checking your watch as the songs and story line grow less distinct, and the plot becomes increasingly shallow and predictable. Until the end, anyway.

We fans of Signature Theatre know we’re not going to see a truly bad musical at the Shirlington complex. Director Eric Schaeffer is a genius, and his deft touch shows here. He has taken trite material and whipped it into something more than palatable.

The grumbling from some theater patrons exiting the Max showroom centered on the sketchy story and the too many songs stretching out the running time. Not on the performances or the production values:  Those are first rate.

Presidential heir apparent

The Fix opens with a leading presidential candidate expiring in the throes of lust with a mistress. So, who in the family is next in line for the White House?

The dead man’s cruelly calculating widow doesn’t want to waste the years she has been clawing her way to the top, so she hits her inner re-set button. Being the mother of a president rather than the wife of a president will have to do.

Enter the slacker prince to the dynastic throne, a lethargic but charming stoner, who suddenly finds himself pressed into service. Keeping things all in the family, it is left to the prince’s uncle, brother to his late father, to make his rise to the top happen. He is, after all, the political genius who has actually been pulling all the right levers over the years. 

If you’re a Republican, you can enjoy thinking this is all a dig at the Kennedys. Or maybe the Clintons. (The show was originally staged in 1998, during the Republican impeachment fever over President Bill Clinton.) 

If you’re a Democrat, you can easily envision the Bush dynasty, with a version of George W as the hapless prince. All while enjoying a swinging little orchestra and great dancing and singing. So there’s something for everyone. Well, maybe not Trumpers.

Mired in the past

The conceit of the show is that we’re supposed to think we’re being shown shocking new things — like dynastic politics, candidates reading speeches off TelePrompters, or consultants hammering campaign talking points into a candidate’s head. Or that politicians are people, with the problems people have. 

It’s only when the show lampoons and celebrates — wallows actually — in those things with a sense of tongue-in-cheek fun that any of that is interesting.

Writers John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe, whose The Witches of Eastwick some years back was extremely enjoyable at Signature, are supposed to have worked with Schaeffer to modernize the show.

I did not see the original version, so I can’t recognize the new elements, other to note that whatever they did, the show still seems quite anachronistic. Especially so as Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes and Misha Kachman’s set design blur time and place.

I think it’s supposed to be the 1960s, though, because everybody smokes, and when the heir to the political throne is sent off to war to beef up his resume, he ends up in a jungle rather than a desert.

Energetic, tuneful cast

In the supporting role of dead Senator Reed Chandler, irrepressible Bobby Smith luckily keeps popping up to visit with his son Cal, played by fresh-faced and six-packing Mark Evans.

Smith, in fact, gets the show’s most pithy line when he counsels a reluctant Cal to accept his political birthright, saying, “Life isn’t about who you are. Life is about who you’re meant to be. That’s how you get there.”

Smith injects energy into every scene he’s in, never more so than when he teams up with the always dependable Lawrence Redmond for a colorfully-costumed, tap-dancing song right out of Tin Pan Alley, called “Two Guys at Harvard” to push off Act Two.

Here, Matthew Gardiner’s appropriately showy and energetic choreography is delightfully creative. Redmond, after all, is playing the polio-stricken family fixer, the brother and Uncle Grahame Chandler. And Gardiner works his crutches into the beats.

Look for a couple of bright cameo spots from fan fave Tracy Lynn Olivera as a political vocal coach, and Will Gartshore, who we haven’t seen enough of the last few years, playing against type as a redneck convict with a stake in this game. 

The show ultimately belongs to Christine Sherrill, however, as the combination Lady MacBeth/Joe Kennedy character of momma Violet Chandler. It will be hard to overlook this performance come the next Helen Hayes Awards.

If Redmond subtlety layers his Grahame with strains of shame and hidden desires, Sherrill goes into full Cruella de Vil mode. She’s deliciously manipulative, not evil as much as she is a creature of pure cunning. And she can sing. She grabs the audience by our collective throats with her torchy number “Spin” and well, just this: wow!

When son Cal gets a medal, she beholds it with awe. “A Purple Heart,” she exclaims. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. I’m going to redo the entire living room in yellow so it pops.” And we buy that.

Sherrill fills the theatre with force of personality, a blend of arrogance and vulnerability that keeps us from hating her. This is, after all, the story of her ambition.

And the story ends in a spot it might better have picked up with near the top of Act One. To say more would be a spoiler, but the story might then have been much more interesting, and in this particular election cycle, much more relevant.

If you go

The Fix continues through Sept. 20 at Signature Theatre’s MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., in Arlington.

Performance schedule: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. An open captioned performance will be held Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m.

Ticket prices range from $40 to $96 and may be purchased online at www.signature-theatre.org, by calling Ticketmaster at 703-573-SEAT, or by visiting the Box Office during business hours, weekdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and weekends from noon to 6 p.m.

“Rush” tickets cost $30 at the Box Office beginning one hour prior to show, subject to availability. At sold-out performances, rush rates will only be applicable for obstructed view seats. Members of the military and veterans can get a 20 percent discount off all tickets.

The theater is accessible for people with disabilities, though it is recommended that special seating needs be mentioned when tickets are purchased. Free listening devices are available. Free parking is available in nearby public garages.

For general information, contact Signature at (703) 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.