Partisan attack ads used to be crafted mostly for television and newspapers. But these days they're popping up in other forms in surprising places, like Broadway.
At the Tony-winning "Avenue Q," for instance, audiences are reassured in the show's finale that, like sex and a full head of hair, George W. Bush is "only for now." In the recent satiric hit "Mrs. Farnsworth," which is being revived next week by the SoHo-based Flea Theater, playwright A.R. Gurney lampoons the president's moral fitness with a fabricated tale detailing his caddish mistreatment of a Vassar coed during his college years.
Now the Bush administration takes another slam from the stages of the city with "The Frogs," a newly expanded version of a musical trifle composed 30 years ago by Stephen Sondheim that opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Based on the Aristophanes comedy of the same name, this topical mishmash has its assets, among them some lively acrobatics care of director-choreographer Susan Stroman and the sly comic touches of actors such as Peter Bartlett and Daniel Davis. On the whole, though, this is a self-adoring gasbag of a musical, with a book by Nathan Lane that all but gags on its own gags.
"The Frogs" does not exactly engender sympathy for Bush, but you do find yourself wishing that the adapter -- who is also the evening's star -- had not felt it necessary to dump the party line so blatantly in our laps. It's interesting to note that the score by Sondheim, filled with clever ditties, breezily avoids Lane's smug brand of political righteousness. Over and over again Lane tells us in "The Frogs" ("The time is the present, the place is ancient Greece") that the political leaders of Athens are militaristic dolts who bankrupt their civilization in an endless war they can't escape.
How long before this gets old? Not very. When an amphibious species is identified as the "Bully Bush Frog," it must also be characterized as a creature that "makes preemptive strikes and forgets why it attacked in the first place."
Topicality is healthy for the stage, and a dose of old-fashioned character assassination can be a source of wicked refreshment. But shouldn't a dagger between the shoulder blades be administered with some finesse? ("Avenue Q's" one-line jibe is more effective than all the Bush jokes here combined.) The script makes no claim on subtlety, from its hyper-neurotic New Yorky characters, to its galling penchant for recycling jokes, to its rampant editorializing. Remember Joey Nichols, the insufferable uncle in "Annie Hall" who slaps a nickel on his head and instructs little Alvy Singer to think of him as Joey Five Cents? That's the essence of the relentless aggressiveness of "The Frogs."
"The Frogs" began as a lark. Staged in 1974 in a swimming pool at Yale, it ran about an hour. The book was by Burt Shevelove, who with Larry Gelbart wrote the other, more famous Sondheim musical based on a classical comedy, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." In Lane's rewrite, the evening stretches to a laborious 21/2 hours, telling the story of Dionysos (Lane), the Greek god of drama and hedonism, as he travels to Hades to bring back a dead writer (in this case, George Bernard Shaw) who is supposed to transform the world with the power of his prose.
It was Lane's notion to rework Shevelove's book so that Bush's Iraq policy became the linchpin of the world's descent into chaos (though the idea of a playwright in this age swaying the conscience of the globe is a little preposterous). The frogs of "The Frogs," meanwhile, are denizens of the River Styx who, vehemently opposed to change, try to eat Dionysos. Slimy conservatives! The machinations lead to a grueling second-act showdown in Hell, presided over by Lane, between Shaw (Davis) and Shakespeare (Michael Siberry) to decide who's qualified for the job of a major humanitarian gesture.
With the show scheduled to run at Lincoln Center while the Republicans are convening next month at Madison Square Garden, the actor may have looked on his task as a civic calling. Sitting through it feels at times like compulsory duty.
Sondheim, as always adhering to high standards, provides a score of playful dirges and elegant patter songs. "Hades," for example, sung by a Pluto (Bartlett) so fey he makes Carson Kressley seem like a long-haul truck driver, sets off kooky sparks. Stroman, however, has only spotty success with the material. The stylish lyrics of the prologue, "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience," fall flat because of the smirky delivery of Lane and Roger Bart, a last-minute replacement for Chris Kattan as Dionysos's slave Xanthias.
Lane and Bart work like a desperate standup act. Emulating Pseudolus and Hysterium of "A Funny Thing," they wisecrack and ogle the bosomy Amazons and gasp at the musclemen. Although both rode the comedy waves with panache in "The Producers" -- Bart was ultra-swishy Carmen Ghia -- here they're swimming against a current of enforced merriment.
No one in this pool of top-notch talent is able to reverse the tide. For that, a much higher power would have to be summoned. Paging the god of overkill!
The Frogs, adapted by Nathan Lane, from Burt Shevelove's version of the play by Aristophanes. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Sets, Giles Cadle; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Kenneth Posner; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; musical direction, Paul Gemignani; sound, Scott Lehrer. With John Byner, Burke Moses, Pia C. Glenn, Kathy Voytko. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Oct. 10 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Manhattan. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.lct.org.