'President Harding' Wins the Zany Vote

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

At this point, we could all use some extra irreverence about presidential politics. So it's a propitious time for the Landless Theatre Company to present "President Harding Is a Rock Star," a POTUS-themed lampoon with a refreshingly retrospective bent. If you threw a "Saturday Night Live" election skit into a blender with an American history textbook and an electric guitarist, you might get a diversion very much like Kyle Jarrow's rock musical, which is camping it up at the District of Columbia Arts Center through Nov. 30.

The rough-hewn but energetic Landless production -- billed as the show's second-ever staging, after its New York premiere -- tightrope-walks pleasantly between the sophomoric and the ingeniously absurdist. Clocking in at a mere 60 minutes, thanks in part to brisk direction by Melissa Baughman, "President Harding" should serve as an efficient frustration-release valve for audiences maddened by flier-jammed mailboxes, robo-calls and the like.

On the basis of his scandal-plagued tenure in the White House during the early 1920s, some historians have dubbed Warren G. Harding the worst president in U.S. history -- a label that evidently lured the attention of Jarrow, creator of the widely performed spoof "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant." Riffing in part on the fact that Harding was an amateur musician (he played in a band while coming of age in Ohio), Jarrow's sendup recasts the 29th president as a charismatic but dimwitted rock star whose appetites are as decadent as his self-assurance is robust.

"Now you're gonna feel good, America. . . . I'm going to make you sweat red, white and blue!" Harding (Landless Producing Artistic Director Andrew Lloyd Baughman) sings in the show's early moments, as blue-sequined dancing girls (Katie Molinaro and Karissa Swanigan) bouncily Charleston behind him.

As the show proceeds to chronicle a gleefully cartoonish and anachronistic version of Harding's life, actor Baughman becomes an enjoyably buffoonish figure. His flamboyant glam-rocker get-up -- eyeliner, blue eye shadow and a red, white and blue satiny suit whose neckline reveals ample chest hair -- matches his physical backdrop: a red, blue and off-white Harding campaign poster plastered in front of a U.S. flag.

Set designer Jared Davis flanks this patriotic montage with a narrow and deep band shell for the four musicians, who frequently leave their instruments to portray various characters. (Josh Speerstra is the guitarist and band leader.) Drummer Brett Abelman is particularly funny as a wide-eyed Herbert Hoover, the secretary of commerce. His protests against the administration's excesses -- such as awarding Cabinet positions as poker prizes -- repeatedly earn him the rebuff "Shut up, Herbert!" from Harding's corrupt crony Harry Daugherty (an endearingly villainous, bowler-hatted Dave Bobb).

In a set of even wackier scenes, keyboardist Esther Covington and bassist Jen Tonon double as -- go figure -- Alexander Hamilton and Napoleon, who become Harding's coke-snorting buddies. Richelle Howie rounds out the cast, and does much of the singing, as Harding's wife, who slinks around in a scarlet mini-dress and matching fishnets, frequently offering her husband crabmeat. (Harding died in office in 1923, perhaps of food poisoning contracted from eating the crustaceans.)

Kooky though much of it is, "President Harding" stays grounded in history. During the show, black-and-white photos and film footage from Harding's times (World War I battlefields, marching suffragettes, Al Jolson in blackface, Harding himself) occasionally skitter across the wall to the left. In conjunction with Peter Vargo's deliberately garish lighting, the projections (also by Vargo) give the production the busy, strident look of a rock concert. As the Landless artists are quite aware, the comparison between politicians and billboard-climbing music celebrities makes all too much sense as Election 2008 strikes its final chords.

President Harding Is a Rock Star, with book, music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow. Directed by Melissa Baughman; musical direction and vocal arrangements, Andrew Lloyd Baughman; choreography, Karissa Swanigan; costumes, Elizabeth D. Reeves. One hour. Through Nov. 30 at the District of Columbia Arts Center, at 2438 18th St. NW. Visit http://www.landlesstheatrecompany.org.

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