When I was a child it seemed the only thing they ever showed on PBS was Mark Russell. Clad in a bow tie, the inexplicable old guy would grind out horrid old-timey vamps on the piano while barking out "satirical" lyrics about the ins and outs of Washington politics. I may have been just a kid, but after five minutes with Russell I seriously questioned whether it was worth the bother to carry on.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached Joshua Rosenblum's Bush Is Bad, a cabaret-style musical satire of the Dubya years. Sure, it got good reviews when it opened in New York in 2004, but my worst nightmare was a piano-bothering reprise of Russell's self-satisfied insider schtick (left-leaning version).
Mission accomplished: Bonni Allen, Bill Scharpen, and Ross Young
My fears did not come true on opening night. Bush Is Bad, it turns out, offers up an impressive range of musical modes and comedic styles, sliding past in a brisk 90 minutes and almost making its case that the last six years have been one big laugh riot. Much of the credit goes to musical director Michael Erickson, who supplies solo piano and provides brisk and detailed accompaniment.
A show such as this is only going to be as good as its cast, though, and this three-person crew (Bonni Allen, Bill Scharpen, and Ross Young the first night; other performers will rotate throughout the show's run) provides able vocals and decent impersonations (Young paralyzes half his mouth at one point in the patented Cheney snarl; you're tempted to cry out for him to stop, lest his face get stuck that way). A straightforward opener about Dubya providing hope to all the nation's lamebrains gives way to the lilting "New Hope for the Fabulously Wealthy," which sets the tone for what follows: lyrics that range from serviceable to good, buttressed by music and performances that rarely duplicate what came before.
Rosenblum, who, like Erickson, brings a background in classical music to the agitprop, tosses out a Schumann-style German art song called "Das Bush Ist Schlect" to propel matters along (Young delivers it in a smoking jacket, all droopy-dog seriousness). Later, Andrew Lloyd Weber takes a spanking via "Scooter Libby Superstar," and Allen transforms into an acid, gap-toothed Condi Rice for the Jerome Kern send-up "Can't Help Lovin' That Bush of Mine."
The best stuff, though, is when Bush is allowed to speak for himself. In one number Scharpen recites a Dubya speech on privatizing Social Security; it's startlingly incoherent, with the president periodically commenting on his own lack of clarity (to help, Allen performs interpretive dance). Probably the best number of the night is "In His Own Words," a feel-good ballad based on strung-together Dubya quotes ("Put food on your family, make the pie higher").
The main problem is that this is a show steeped in the 2004 election, when Dubya was a bit more of a relevant target—today most of the country agrees with the basic premise (and don't bother feeling sorry for George, he seems sincerely not to care). As things stand, Bush Is Bad is starting to show its age, and a new song delivered by Young playing Al Franken (laying out the borderline tautology that Norm Coleman is unfunny) was pretty much received on opening night to the sound of figurative crickets chirping.
In a quick conversation before the show, Erickson said his play is intended to be a living satire, updated as events change (he's been waiting for the sword of Damocles to plunge through Alberto Gonzales's breast for ages so he can uncork a new tune). As the Bush administration limps toward its finish line, one hopes that Bush Is Bad's creators can produce a few fresh jabs at the usual suspects to stave off staleness. And should the Republicans require entertainment for their 2008 convention in St. Paul, I'm sure everyone in the production would happily pack up for the journey across the river. Hey, it beats Mark Russell, no matter your party affiliation.