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Do you have that friend? The guy who spends an inordinate amount of time deciding what cocktails or wine or, thanks to the whole gastropub movement, beer to have with a meal? Given all the hours of Food Network devoted to pairing what we will drink with what we will eat, why not branch the idea out a bit? What if, instead of wondering if you can drink that Belgian ale with your tilapia, you tried matching your theater to your tapas?
Can you have Thai with Frost/Nixon? Is fish and chips and The Lieutenant of Inishmore too predictable? And what might go with that Adams Morgan culinary icon: the oversized pizza slice?
The answer to that last one is actually quite easy. Landless Theatre Co.’s production of President Harding is a Rock Star screams to be accompanied by a ton of greasy pepperoni balanced on a paper plate. It’s a musical that is just barely held together, presented in a fashion so DIY you might expect someone to ask if you’d mind pitching in and performing backup for a few numbers.
It’s also a performance that reminds you that passion and enthusiasm will always go further than elaborate sets and state-of-the-art lighting systems. By the end you might be wondering if President Harding truly was a rock star, but you’ll be certain the folks at Landless are.
Warren G. Harding was the 29th president of the United States (1921-1923), elected into office by a public who saw a handsome, successful businessman who promised a country wracked by World War I a return to normalcy. Once in office, however, Harding surrounded himself with some questionable friends and trusted them in prominent positions. Alan B. Fall, Harding’s secretary of the interior, would be the first member of the U.S. Cabinet to go to prison, for his involvement in the Teapot Dome scandal.
Harding pulled the U.S. out of the League of Nations and pushed for isolationist policies. He gambled away a set of White House china. He may have engaged in extra-marital affairs, one of which is rumored to have produced a baby girl.
He played a mean coronet.
And Harding would be the third U.S. president to die in office, although the cause of his death has been the subject of some speculation. (Hint to Landless audience members: This is not a musical that pairs well with seafood.)
If you have some trepidation about a rock musical based on the life of a president — particularly one who resonates in the collective memory of this country like Harding (next up, Chester A. Arthur: A Glam Rock Odyssey) — it’s probably with good reason. One of the issues with a treatment like this is the desire to use the show as a mirror of our current political condition. A kind of ”the more things change, the more they stay the same” irony that can become as tiresome as it is entertaining.
President Harding, however, does two important and often undervalued things. First, it’s a fast little show, clocking in at just about an hour. This means that it gets in, has fun with what it can, and makes sure not to overstay its welcome.
Second, it mixes enough fantasy with the fact that it can be enjoyed not as a “grand statement” musical, but a plain and simple good time. (Okay, there is that poster of Harding styled to look like the “Obama Hope” image — but who could help themselves?)
Working it like a rock star is Andrew Lloyd Baughman as Harding. Like an Elvis impersonator working the main room at the National Archives, Baughman is magnetic and gregarious with a voice that serves the material well. He’s joined by Richelle Howie who plays First Lady Florence Harding, a street-smart Yoko Ono who breaks up the band by trying to turn her musician husband into a political superstar. Howie is that talented musician who understands her own voice enough to know how to fill a room without overwhelming the audience. She’s a strong performer with a knockout presence.
Katie Molinaro hits her stride when she abandons her backup singer duties to take a turn as starstruck groupie and possible mother of illegitimate presidential offspring, Nan Briton. Likewise, drummer Brett Abelman gives a great performance when he comes to the table as bullied nerd Herbert Hoover.
Now here’s the reality check: No one will be taking to the Helen Hayes stage for appearing in Landless Theatre Co.’s production of President Harding is a Rock Star. And that’s the biggest reason you should see it.
You won’t have the plush lobby to hang out in or the valet parking, but you’ll see a group of actors who clearly love what they’re doing and are going out of their way to make sure you love it too.