by Barbara Waldinger
What would summer in the Berkshires be like without a new edition of Capitol Steps, currently in residence at Cranwell’s Harvest Barn, their tenth year in Lenox? This company of singing parodists, whose motto is: “We put the ‘Mock’ in Democracy,” have been performing throughout the country live, on radio, television and recorded on albums (37) since 1981. It is a nationwide operation, self-described as a “well-oiled machine,” able to dispense touring companies to private and public events “with almost frightening efficiency.”
Constantly amending the show to keep up with current headlines, lyricists Mark Eaton, Elaina Newport, and even cast members concoct ideas for adapting familiar songs to fit the latest scandals. The playbills include a list of titles that may be included, with the caveat that others could replace them without notice.
When Capitol Steps was formed, many of the performers worked on Capitol Hill, while each of today’s companies consists of five professional singer/actors and a pianist. The cast in this edition, called Orange is the New Barack, impersonate dozens of political figures across the spectrum, satirizing members of both parties with impartial abandon. A seemingly infinite number of wigs and costumes (there must be a dresser behind the black curtain that masks their changing area—at least I hope so!) facilitate their instantaneous identity-shifts. The set, such as it is, consists of a white curtain on which is depicted a colorful representation of the Capitol, a black platform and four microphones. That’s it. Cranwell’s air-conditioned Harvest Barn can accommodate a large audience (averaging about 135 per show) with general seating for the ninety-minute intermissionless show.
The performers are exemplary. Janet Davidson Gordon plays, among myriad others, Melania Trump, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Ann Coulter. A member of the company for nineteen years and frequent collaborator on their songs, Gordon has done a wonderful job developing the mannerisms, voice and speaking style of each of her characters. Among Delores King Williams’ roles are Kellyanne Conway, Elizabeth Warren, Rachel Maddow, Angela Merkel and Betsy DeVos, singing, appropriately, Don’t Know Much About History. Williams is an award-winning singer whose in-your-face characterizations are hilarious. Morgan Duncan’s Barack Obama impersonation is so spot-on that a sad and loving audience expressed its emotion with tumultuous applause. Jamie Zemarel as Putin, with his Russian hat and bare chest is priceless, singing Putin on a Blitz; he also shines as Donald Trump (a la Alec Baldwin), Bill Clinton (hoarse-voiced), George W. Bush (not so bad after all!), a smiling Joe Biden, a smarmy Mike Pence, an overweight Al Gore, and a very southern Jeff Sessions appropriating (more or less) Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer to explain his Congressional testimony: “Lie, lie, lie.” Brad VanGrack, equally at home with Shakespeare and Capitol Steps, gives us a Yiddish Bernie Sanders in a disheveled white wig, singing If There Were No Rich Men; the president of Mexico, claiming to be happy about the wall because his 13-foot ladder business will earn a fortune; and a side-splitting, unintelligible Bob Dylan in a tie-dyed shirt singing, with Al Gore and others, the climate-change anthem, We Warm the World.
There are so many clever lyrics and amusing performances that even when a joke, song, or character fails to elicit the desired laughter, another, funnier sketch follows closely on its heels. The appearance of the elderly liberal Supreme Court justices led to the clever lyrics borrowed from the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever– Keep em Alive. And towards the end of the evening, Brad VanGrack delivers a monologue of spoonerisms that brings the house down. Here’s an example: “Jadies and lentleman, for over yirty thears now, the Stapitol Ceps have foked pun at skig bandles and poopid stoliticians.” And it goes on from there, getting more and more scatological by the minute. The entire monologue is provided on a free crib sheet entitled Lirty Dies: Tronald Dump and Clillary Hinton; naturally a number of the company’s CDs are available for purchase as well.
It may seem redundant to ridicule the chaos that is today’s Washington. But if you think that present-day politicians have inadvertently cornered the market on parody, check out Capitol Steps to see what the real experts can do.
Capitol Steps runs from June 30—September 1 at Cranwell’s Harvest Barn. For tickets call 413-881-1636 or online at cranwell.com.
Cranwell Spa and Golf Resort presents Capitol Steps. Cast: Jamie Zemarel, Morgan Duncan, Janet Davidson Gordon, Brad VanGrack, Delores King Williams. Pianist: Howard Breitbart. Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission; at Cranwell’s Harvest Barn, 112 Lee Road, Lenox, MA., from June 30; closing September 1st.