by Fred Baumgarten
In this era of social media and spoofy news shows – John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Saturday Night Live, the Onion, Andy Borowitz, etc. – when political jokes travel the world faster than you can say “Trump,” how does a musical revue that “puts the mock in democracy” keep it up after nearly four decades?
For the Capitol Steps, the answer is: Just fine, thank you.
Their latest show, “The Lyin’ Kings,” was performed in the Harvest Barn at Cranwell Resort by a cast more than up to the challenge, and had the audience roaring with laughter (pun intended).
The speed with which the troupe could adapt and create new skits and lyrics – always set to well-known pop tunes – rivaled the speed of the internet. Amazingly, I counted only one number performed from the printed program. Just days after the two initial Democratic presidential debates, the full – nay, overstuffed – gallery of candidates was on display, aided by what must be the world’s largest collection or wigs, not to mention a wicked knack for finding the rhyme.
Except for one candidate, alas: Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” was set to lyrics lamenting that “Pete Buttigieg is the hardest rhyme.”
Mixing old and new is part of the Steps’ charm. In a wide-ranging conversation after the show, the group admitted to me that they had used that trope before with former congressman Dan Rostenkowski – for those old enough to remember that name. References to everything from Seinfeld to George Hamilton’s tan were sprinkled throughout.
To Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major General,” a sprightly AOC sang “I am the very model of a modern major liberal.” The current Vice President was lauded by the religious right in a number called “Pence Is from Heaven” (“Pennies from Heaven”). Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” became “Sound of Sanders” (“Hello voters, my old friends….”).
The Steps’ Mike Thornton did an Alec Baldwin-level Trump impersonation and also had some of the night’s best zingers. As Joe Biden, he promised that the most important lesson he learned is that “harass is not two words.” Thornton also had a couple of hilarious stand-up bits, the best being toward the end of the show when he executed the Steps’ signature speech of spoonerisms in an extended monologue. He made sure to cover “Tronald Dump” and all the “Hemocratic Dopefuls.” The rest I’ll leave spoiler-free (or foiler-spree).
Perhaps the highlight of the night was a rendition of “Stayin’ Alive” performed by RBG and Stephen Breyer, and their younger SCOTUS colleagues Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor. Think of it as a fervent prayer of liberals, a la disco. Push-ups may or may not have been involved.
Cast members Thornton, Morgan Duncan, Janet Davidson Gordon, Bari Biern, and Evan Casey gave it their all, and Howard Breitbart provided brisk and flawless accompaniment on electric piano. The two women, like many other Capitol Steps players, had careers on the Hill before joining the troupe, although that is no longer a requirement as it once was.
In all, the company has almost two dozen players and can field up to three shows simultaneously in different locations, each with a cast of five. It worried me going in that such a factory model of success might sap the soul of the performers; I won’t say that there weren’t one or two moments when the show’s energy flagged a bit. But by the end of the night, the Capitol Steps rose to the occasion, and the audience, this member included, left thoroughly entertained.
THE CAPITOL STEPS will be appearing regularly at Cranwell Resort in Lenox, Mass., nightly except Tuesdays at 8 pm through August 30. Tickets may be purchased online at www.capsteps.com or by calling 800-272-6935.
The Capitol Steps present THE LYIN’ KINGS, with lyrics by Elaina Newport, Mark Eaton, and the cast. Cast: Morgan Duncan, Janet Davidson Gordon, Bari Biern, Mike Thornton, and Evan Casey. Accompaniment: Howard Breitbart.
Running Time: approx. 1 hour 30 minutes, no intermission. Cranwell Resort, 55 Lee Road, Lenox. From June 30; closing Aug. 30.