If your tolerance for corrosive behavior is high and you’ve been craving a musical version of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” “The Fix” may see you through. The show at Signature Theatre in Arlington opens on a randy U.S. senator with his pants down, dying in the saddle — and be warned, that’s just a gentle precursor to the hard drugs and underworld thuggery in store as the senator’s would-be family dynasty keeps clawing for power.
The senator’s widow, Violet, is a “Manchurian Candidate” mama who wants her son Cal to fulfill her husband’s political ambitions. Instead of grieving, Cal is upstairs smoking pot, playing air guitar and seducing the sexy help.
Who can possibly convert this moody party boy into presidential timber? The answer is Cal’s uncle Grahame, a Richard III-type operator who gets around on crutches and strategizes with clinical menace.
“We all have our secrets, you misshapen [homosexual],” Violet hisses to Grahame as they scheme to mold Cal into a plausible candidate, only Violet uses the three-letter f-word for a gay person.
That’s how they sling the family mud in this willfully impolitic show by John Dempsey (book and lyrics) and Dana P. Rowe (music). When the other f-word spills from handsome Cal’s mouth during his first news conference, he embraces it with an upbeat gospel-inflected number called “Simple Words.” Naturally, he becomes a plain-spoken hit.
“The Fix” is political satire with a jagged edge, and it’s part of Signature lore: In 1998, the scrappy troupe, then working out of a converted auto garage, teamed with producer Cameron Mackintosh for the hard-driving musical’s U.S. premiere. Rowe’s rock-based songs have range and swagger — The Who’s Pete Townshend wrote the liner notes for the London CD — and Dempsey’s saga is packed with nasty characters engaged in tabloid-worthy shenanigans. As the show’s first few numbers efficiently send up the cynical political playbook, you begin to wonder if Signature should roll this out every election cycle.
The thought doesn’t last, though. “The Fix” is a difficult, brittle show with a heart of ice, and Eric Schaeffer’s slick production leaps at the exaggerations and does everything “bigly,” to use one of Donald Trump’s favorite words.
When Cal enlists in a brief, controlled stint with the U.S. Army (it’s the 1960s, though you can’t always tell), the stage explosions rattle your seat and blind your eyes.
When Violet breaks down in a late number inevitably titled “Spin,” Christine Sherrill delivers the escalating song with peel-the-wallpaper intensity. Small moments are few and far between.
That’s how “The Fix” is wired, even though the tantalizing human overlay between politics and showbiz — the spotlight, the adrenaline, the mandate to seduce — was a clear draw for Dempsey and Rowe. “Two Guys at Harvard” employs a jaunty vaudeville style as the polio-stricken Grahame (Lawrence Redmond) recalls his competitive school days with his now-dead brother Reed (a political natural gleefully played by Bobby Smith).
Sure, it’s sick humor when the men use Grahame’s crutches in the top-hat-and-canes number. But the puckish musical choice has kick.
There’s a fascinating back story to Grahame’s bitterness, too, but shortly after the show reveals his vulnerability he is humiliated with a shocking gesture from Cal (a terrific Mark Evans, wonderfully varied and sure-voiced). There is flair and bite in Grahame’s wit, but Redmond mostly just seethes in the part, playing it through gritted teeth. Sherrill has even less to work with as the coolly manipulative Violet, but she brings intimidating composure and a conservative sense of style to the role, thanks in part to tight, plain Political Wife dresses by costume designer Hunter Kaczorowski.
Still, Rowe’s music often has enough tang to keep you gawking at these stunted personalities. Tina, the stripper and drug pusher with (gulp) a heart of gold, duskily played by Rachel Zampelli, gets a pair of alluring tunes: the bluesy “Lonely is a Two-Way Street” and the splendidly weird “Mistress of Deception,” which sounds like an overblown guilty pleasure from the 1970s pop charts.
There’s a bass-driven funk to the Army sequence and an infectiously sinister pulse for a mobster’s big number called “Dangerous Games” (which features the energetic but mechanical choral dancing too typical of Matthew Gardiner’s choreography here).
Music director Jon Kalbfleisch’s eight instrumentalists, perched atop Misha Kachman’s deliberately generic executive mansion set, crisply supplies bright trumpet fanfares and louche sax riffs as well as the full flailing guitar rock of Cal’s “One, Two, Three.”
“The Fix” isn’t razzle-dazzle, though. It’s shock and awe. Its impulse is to wallow in a sordid underbelly of corruption and public lies — something it shares with the other big, flawed musical project Schaeffer chose to revive recently from his own directing history, “Elmer Gantry.” Don’t go expecting a politician’s wily wink and smile.
The Fix, book and lyrics by John Dempsey, music by Dana P. Rowe. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Lights, Ryan O’Gara; video design, Hannah Marsh; sound design, Lane Elms. With Will Gartshore, Jessica Lauren Ball, Stephen Gregory Smith, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Jamie Eacker, Caroline Wolfson, Nickolas Vaughan, Maria Egler, Matt Conner, Christopher Mueller, Mark Chandler, Nick Lehan and Jordan DeBona. About 21/2 hours. Through Sept. 20 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets $40 to $96, subject to change. Call 703-820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.