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A CurtainUp Review
Bush Wars

I've got the "there are so many red states, but I'm living in a blue state" kind of blues. --- --Opening line of the song "Red State Blues"

Bush Wars Cast
Clockwise from top L: Jay Falzone, Jason Levinson, Andrea McCormick, Chris Van Hoy & Abigail Nessen
(Photo: Jim Russek)
You can't say you weren't warned. The press release for Bush Wars, the Help Is On The Way company's new musical at the Collective: Unconscious Theater, calls the show a "counterattack on what its creators view as the disgraceful agenda of the Bush administration," and from the opening number the show delivers on its promise.

The lights go up on a college-age George W. Bush (expertly played by Jason Levinson) doing a line of cocaine on his desk while an eager devil (played by the multitalented Jay Falzone, who also co-directed and choreographed the show) prepares to suggest ways the young son of privilege can get out of going to Vietnam --  . . like how to get a deferment the way Dick Cheney did. --"five times" The price is small--simply agree to do the devil's bidding, and Dubya might even work his way to the Presidency itself. Inspired, the younger Bush declares that he "wants a war" to finish what his dad started. One song-and-dance number with his potential middle-America constituents later and we're well into the world of Bush Wars, where the satire comes fast and furious and the jokes are preset for maximum laughter from a decidedly blue-state audience.

There are certainly things to like about this production. Despite the smallness of the space (the entire theater only seats seventy-four, and that with a lot of squeezing) the cast uses what room it has on a simple set efficiently and cleverly, and manages to fit in a lot of visual variations. The producers boast of having dozens of costume changes designed by Elizabeth Payne. This seemed about right to me -- though the costumes weren't exactly complex creations.

By far the best part of Bush Wars is the cast, which is uniformly excellent. Andrea McCormick, Abigail Nessen and Chris Van Hoy join theaforementioned Levinson and Falzone in a series of energetic and well-performed musical numbers. Their enthusiasm can sometimes go overboard; to be specific, the singers' volume is five times louder than necessary for such a small theater and many of the people around me winced at some numbers which could have filled a small outdoor arena. Still, Falzone, Nancy Holson (the creator, writer, and co-director) and Alex Rovang, the musical director and pianist, deserve credit for getting the small cast to commit as fully as it does towards creating a lively production.

The good news then is that there's plenty of energy, spirit and "intelligent design" (not the Kansas school board's kind, though which gets taken care of in the song "Evolution-Everything's Out of Date in Kansas City") in this production. The bad news is that it needs to work as well as a musical as it does as polemic, and it's here that Bush Wars runs into its most major obstacles.

Holson, best known for her off-Broadway show The News in Revue which has run in a number of cities and is now a fixture at the Cranwell Resort in the Berkshires, is clearly clever, and a lot of the numbers in Bush Wars reflect a grasp of both political and theatrical spoof conventions. The number "Terror at the Olive Garden," where Dubya and his mother Barbara dance with Osama Bin Laden and his mother to the theme (and even some of the choreography!) of West Side Story's "America," shows flashes of this insight. But much more often we get the feeling that we've been down this road before. Heard the one about Dubya being stupid? It's covered here, numerous times. How about the outwardly all-American family, loving parents and well-behaved kids, who turn out upon closer examination to be at each other's throats, pregnant (the supposedly virginal daughter) and gay (that's the Boy Scout son, of course) respectively? See number six, "Family Values-- The Institute of Marriage" for your satisfaction. Then there's the screamer about Dick Cheney being in bed with the oil companies -- see number nine, "Cheney in Bed With Big Oil."

This problem of familiarity prevails throughout. If Holson wants to convince a typical centrist American voter of the problems of the Bush administration, she's not likely to do it by portraying such voters as ill-educated rubes with pitchforks as she does in "Evolution" or as ignorant religious ideologues as she does in number twelve, where Bush and Jesus do a little soft shoe routine while singing about being "bosom buddies." If she simply wants to fire away at the vast right-wing conspiracy for the benefit of a sympathetic audience, one gets the sense that the salvo has already been fired with too much reliance on the same jokes Saturday Night Live and late night talk show hosts have been making for the past six years.

At times the musical does inject some subtlety into its diet of been there, done that routine -- for example, there's the excellent "Red State Blues," where a singer begins the song dressed in blue and bemoaning the loss of liberal values in America is amusingly and systematically switched in costume (the best designed one in the show), feather boa and even lipstick to pure red by the song's end. This is funny and effective precisely because it's not as obvious a target or predictable an attack. But much more often Holson delivers her satire with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel, leading to a rather predictable series of conclusions.

Neither I nor most New York theater audiences are likely to argue with the politics of Bush Wars. But I can't help feeling that a blue-state musical, written for a blue-state audience, needs to do more than tell jokes to which we have already known the punchlines for a long time.

Creator/Writer: Nancy Holson
Co-Directed by Jay Falzone and Nancy Holson
Cast: Jay Falzone, Jason Levinson, Andrea McCormick, Abigail Nessen, Chris Van Hoy
Music Director/Pianist: Alex Rovang
Set and Prop Design: Patrice Escandon
Costume Design: Elizabeth Payne
Lighting Design: Scott Borowka
Running time: 1 hours, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Help Is On The Way Company, at the Collective: Unconscious Theater, 279 Church St., (212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111
From 1/12/06 to 2/19/06; opening 1/22/06
Thurs.-Sat. @7:30 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m.; Saturday matinee at 2 p.m., Sunday matinee at 3 p.m.
Tickets: $30 for all times and groups
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on January 21 preview performance
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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