Chicago Theater Review: WE THE PEOPLE: THE ANTI-TRUMP MUSICAL (Flying Elephant at Stage 773)

by Lawrence Bommer on January 28, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

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AMERICA’S COARSE ‘CORRECTION’

A huge reason that theater counts is that it can carry a club (or, as the situation warrants, a stiletto). Both an agitprop assault on the 45th President’s betrayal of America’s dreams and a pep rally for the resistance, WE THE PEOPLE: The Anti-Trump Musical is a world premiere from Flying Elephant Productions, a new company on a mission and on a roll. Call it theater as therapy, an outlet to offer communal consolation and commitment.

With a supple, pseudo-Sondheim score and scattershot-to-scathing lyrics by executive director Leo Schwartz, these 16 songs deliver their own shock and awe. They cover a lot of ugly ground. Tracing our national tailspin from the conventions of 2016 to the Electoral College’s denial of three million votes to the second year of a heavily disapproved presidency, they also chronicle a nightmare. Much like Kubler-Ross’s six stages of dying, the press release suggests the show’s emotional progression: “Disappointment, Chaos, Intrigue, Anger, Response!” But, as the title proclaims, there are solutions in solidarity as well.

Accompanied by music director Ty Miles, six actor-singers — Dwayne Everett, Bradley Halverson, Elizabeth Rentfro, Carmen Fisher Risi, Alyssa Soto, and Timothy Swaim — play 55 characters. They’re not headline notables per se but citizens caught in the crossfire, seeking Lincoln’s “better angels” amid dysfunction, disruption, and a feeding frenzy of falsification.

Performed at Stage 773, in the heart of Chicago’s liberal Lakeview neighborhood, the Flying Elephants seem to be preaching to the choir — and more directly and less imaginatively than Brecht and Weill mocked Hitler. But, as a friend reminded me, the choir needs to know it has a congregation.

Essentially Schwartz’s attack on the orange fascist is a “no-brainer” indictment against contagious selfishness, paranoia, pessimism, racism and xenophobia. All these excesses, of course, are latent in the catch-all slogan “Make America Great Again,” a propaganda ploy that badly begs a ton of questions.

With a whiteboard to mark the stages of the crisis, the revue takes us from hope to hate and back again to hope. The opening numbers, “City on a Hill” and “America’s Promise,” contrast the parties and their pow-wows, the G.O.P. credo of “sink or swim” with the feminist anthem “She’s A Woman.” But as the campaigns lurch in dramatically opposite directions (“Love & Hate”), the polarities of a “house divided” poison the national well. In the wistful ballad “Who Won?”, Rentfro, playing a mother reassuring her frightened kids, can only answer “We will.”

Subsequent songs depict reactions to the December 19th verdict by selectors more than electors (“538”) who countermand the popular vote and to the swearing-in (the ass-kissing “Inauguration Report”). Others salute the countless and uncounted contributions of “The Immigrants,” and convey the confusion of U.N. translators in finding euphemisms for Donald’s vituperation.

In a silly ditty strangely set on a cruise ship, mainly Jewish tourists bicker (“Not My President”). Trump’s deluded rust-belt supporters clash with assorted democrats in a “dawn” chorus of “When He Tweets.” But even the latter has buyer’s remorse: Bradley Halverson as a now-doubtful believer intones “Perhaps.” Meanwhile, even as they party big, plutocrats wonder “Wher’d the Party Go?” “We’ve lost our way” becomes both condemnation and cure.

At its best, WE THE PEOPLE conveys the majority’s imploding sense of dread (Swaim’s plaintive “I Wake Up Every Morning”) and incipient panic (the ensemble’s “When Things Start Falling Apart”). But in the folk purity of “Lullaby,” the best offering of the evening, the sextet deliver some darkest-before-dawn “wishful singing.” It beautifully blossoms into the concluding chorus, resolutely set in 2020. Extolling accountability, transparency, and bedrock decency, the title finale literally consists of promissory notes.

Along the way, clever projections by G. “Max” Maxin IV provide pointed examples of the lunacy at large. No, there’s no emotional arc to Schwartz’s score, music that’s more commentary than storytelling. But, as efficiently staged by Derek Van Barham, there’s no disputing the intelligent outrage of the entire enterprise, a 65-minute song cycle that challenges the best amid the worst.

photos by Michael Brosilow

WE THE PEOPLE: The Anti-Trump Musical
Flying Elephant Productions
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Thurs at 7:30; Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 3:30
ends on February 10, 2018
for tickets, call 773.327.5252 or visit Stage 773

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John T January 29, 2018 at 1:34 pm

The man-child currently holding the office of the presidency is the 45th president, not the 46th.

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Editor-in-Chief Tony Frankel January 29, 2018 at 9:38 pm

Thank you John. The original review did state that Mr. Trump is our 46th president. But that has been changed to 45th. Perhaps Mr. Bommer was already dreaming that the 46th was in office already!

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