It’s easy to get disoriented in the Ronald Reagan Building, what with its 2,000 separate entrances and an interior design scheme that combines an Ikea store’s labyrinthine layout with the flair of an international airport concourse. On a recent Friday night, I wandered the building hopelessly lost until a security guard took pity on me and pointed me toward a gathering of gray-haired folks with matching tote bags.
“Oh no, I’m not here for a conference, I’m here to see the Capitol Steps,” I said.
“So are they,” the guard replied.
I had expected my fellow audience members to be, well, younger, like the crowd I recently watched “Shear Madness” with. But while that show attracts school groups in droves, the Capitol Steps, it seems, cater to a different species of D.C. tourist: the conference attendee.
Some of them were still wearing their badges from what I’m assuming was a fascinating day at the Global Pension and Savings Conference. Other audience members I chatted up were from the D.C. area. One couple from Bethesda told me they’d brought their out-of-town friends to the show. “We’re Democrats and they’re Republicans,” the woman behind the outing explained. “So this may be the end of our friendship.”
I’m betting their friendship survived. While we live in an age of unprecedented partisan vitriol, the Capitol Steps exist in a kinder, gentler world — a place where Democrats and Republicans laugh and drink together, where show tunes rule the airwaves and where Vanilla Ice is considered hip-hop.
Take, for example, one of the show’s early numbers, “Brand New Pair of Candidates.” Set to the tune of Melanie’s 1971 chart-topper “Brand New Key,” the parody song bemoans the current presidential nominees:
“I want a brand new pair of candidates/ Are they the best we’ve got?/ I wouldn’t vote for Trump or Clinton/ for a school mascot/ I’ve been watching the race awhile/ I don’t like what I see/ Find me a brand new pair of candidates/ someone like Tom Brady,” sang cast member Emily Levey.
At key moments during the song, Levey gestured toward a photo of the handsome quarterback inexpertly glued to poster board. The two-dimensional sets and Halloween-store wigs were equally amateurish. Perhaps this helps the Steps keep their costs down (at $40.50 a pop, tickets are about $10 cheaper than the ones for “Shear Madness,” though you can find deep discounts for both shows online).
The bush-league production values also hark back to the troupe’s early days, when the Capitol Steps consisted of moonlighting Hill staffers. It all began back in 1981, when a half-dozen members of the late Sen. Charles H. Percy’s (R-Ill.) staff sang political parody songs to liven up the senator’s Christmas party. Since then, the group has grown to 24 full-time performers who put on shows every Friday and Saturday in D.C., tour the country and perform their ripped-from-the-headlines songs on radio and TV.
Some songs go stale quickly, but others remain fresh with occasional tweaking. An example of the latter — and one of my favorite performances of the night — was a humorous rewrite of “O Canada” that sparkled with crystalline, four-part harmony and understated wittiness. (Sample lyric: “Oh Canada/ Let us join you all/ Please don’t build a wall.”)
The troupe’s impersonations were less solid than their singing. Evan Casey’s malaprop-prone Vladimir Putin seemed closer to Borat than the menacing Russian president. To be fair, Casey’s Putin was trying to convince us that he’s not so scary after all. Still, the actor’s unplaceable accent returned later when he impersonated Pope Francis and again when he played the president of Greece.
Brian Ash’s squinting, duck-lipped Donald Trump was closer to the mark, especially when he showed up in a surgical mask to debate Hillary Clinton (played by Levey). “I don’t want to get too close to Typhoid Hillary,” he said. The gag seemed like something Trump might actually do.
Ash was also responsible for the night’s highlight, a tongue-twisting soliloquy called “Lirty Dies.” With a rapid-fire string of spoonerisms, Ash began by explaining the “poo-tarty system.”
“But now, along comes the pee tarty. And how to fit a pee tarty into a poo-tarty system?” he asked.
Things remained just nearly naughty until Ash got to talking about Anthony Weiner.
“He got in trig bubble ’cause he took a poto of his phenis. … He wrecked into cheehab and had to pesign his roast. That’s not how he thought he would tend his sperm,” Ash said, deadpan.
The entire audience, Republicans and Democrats alike, roared with laughter. Actually, they just chuckled at a modest volume, but that’s practically a chair-tossing riot for this crowd.
“Lirty Dies” encapsulates the genius of the Capitol Steps: They are clever and funny while managing to be entirely inoffensive. It’s a performance style that contrasts sharply with the current political-comedy zeitgeist, embodied by passionate partisans like John Oliver and Samantha Bee. But perhaps, in these polarized times, this little band of kindhearted performers is exactly what we need: comedy that crosses the aisle to remind us of our shared humanity — and Anthony Weiner’s wiener.
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