I’d Rather Be Right opened at The Alvin Theater in November of 1937 and ran 290 performances. The role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was played by George M. Cohan. According to the scholarly producer, Mel Miller, 1937 gave us The Cradle Will Rock, Our Town on stage, Camille and Stella Dallas on film; Batman became a comic book, Of Mice and Men was published; “Whistle While You Work” was on the hit parade, the Lincoln Tunnel and Golden Gate Bridge opened; King Edward VIII abdicated to marry Mrs. Wallace Simpson.
Peggy ( Laurie Hymes) and Phil (Brent Di Roma) are the kind of fresh, sincere, young people we haven’t seen on stage for years. And years. They want to get married, but can’t afford it. Phil thought he was getting a new job but his boss doesn’t have the money to open a new office. “We can’t get married until they balance the budget,” Phil says woefully, assuming an early version of the trickle-down theory. He falls asleep on Peggy’s lap in Central Park. Piano dream arpeggio.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Steve Brady) stops to ask directions and Phil (deferentially) seizes the opportunity to tell the president their problem. Roosevelt is moved. He buys them ice cream, recording the 25 cent expense in a small black book (the budget) just underneath the cost of several battle ships. He’s not very hopeful, but agrees to try and summons his cabinet. A Gilbert and Sullivanish song introduces the senior members “I have achieved you must admit/the biggest goddamn deficit.” Tell the cabinet your story,” says Roosevelt, whereupon Phil sings perhaps the most recognizable song in the play, “Have You Met Miss Jones?”
The cabinet is also moved. We’re Gonna Balance the Budget is an anthem for the era. Unfortunately ideas like asking the women of the country to give up their beauty products and send the money to the government are found not viable. Everything is already taxed. The Supreme Court (coming out of the bushes) is unwilling to pass any law that might help. “They hate me,” moans Roosevelt. The possibility of using the gold in Fort Knox is floated—and sunk. “You open a door in Kentucky and stocks fall in New York.”
In the second act, The White House Jamboree (Think Hee Haw) is closer to our current sensibilities of satire. It’s “yowza, yowza, be-bop, kazoos, and Capitol Hill gossip (by the Secretary of Labor) mixed with intros and performance turns by such as “…that merry mathematical fool, the Secretary of the Treasury!” (Hear Ed MacMahon). With some text change, this could be Saturday Night Live. Everything is up for parody and skewering.
Brent Di Roma (Phil Barker) is the find here. He’s ingenuous without being cloying, has a lovely tenor voice and a naturalistic acting style that fits the bill. Laurie Hymes (Peggy Jones) pushes a bit too hard and sometimes ends up singing flat. Her acting is fine, bright-eyed and sincere.
Steve Brady (FDR) is a calm, solid, professional presence. His Roosevelt seems to be non-plussed by waking up president let alone having to actually affect things.
The ensemble by enlarge have good voices. Both the girls and boys seem to be having fun with the piece, which is contagious. Kari Ringer and Sara Jayne Blackmore are especially a hoot as German lady acrobats. Michael Mott and Matthew Conti do a nice turn as the carousel Italians.
Of the Cabinet, all of whom had good voices and were effectively game, a stand-out was John Alban Coughlan as Secretary Cordell Hull, who didn’t have a song. His rubber face and complete focus was a pleasure from the audience.
Director/Choreographer, Thomas Sabella-Mills has done a wonderful job evoking the period. Roosevelt and the kids are played as straight men, while the stylized mugging of the rest of the cast is broad. The dances are cute and lively. His representation of the entire Supreme Court is cleverly accomplished with multiple masks. German acrobats, an arms’ sale, a baton and thumb sucking provide comic moments.
Music Director/Vocal Arranger James Stenborg has given us fine harmonies and bubbly arrangements.
This is a timely piece though, despite its pedigree authorship, not a very good one. Like something penned by college seniors, it’s simplistic and genial. One imagines the writers creating it during an ocean crossing primarily in the bar. The almost uniformly talented cast does well with the material, however, making the evening pleasant.
Photo credit: Brandon Ruckdashel
I’d Rather Be Right – Libretto by George S.Kaufman & Moss Hart
Music & Lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
Directed and Choreographed by Thomas Sabella-Mills
McGinn Cazale Theater
2162 Broadway 4th floor
Through February 20, 2011