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REVIEW: Uneven Capitol Steps (Ordway)

A promotional photo for The Capitol Steps, a DC-based troupe that performed on June 30, 2018 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Violet Crown Photo Works.

The Capitol Steps is a unique comic ensemble that performs political satire set to the melodies of pop songs and songs from Broadway. In the beginning, the lyrics were written by actual congressional staffers who were also members of the theatre group. During their daily work on the Hill, they would quickly write down an inspired lyric and share it with one another for additional ideas. This made for insightful humor from within the belly of the beast.

I first saw the Capitol Steps in Washington, DC in 1996; its brand of satirical political humor is a real treat for the political junky. It is incredible fun listening to their song parodies within the milieu they are parodying. Much of the humor of the Capitol Steps comes from the insertion of political lyrics that are shockingly irreverent to the original meaning of the song, such as singing the chorus of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” (“lie, lie, lie”) to describe the Trump administration’s attitude toward the truth.

Recently, the Capitol Steps presented their 2018 touring show at the Ordway in St. Paul.  The comedy group’s audience was conspicuously white – and I’m referring to their hair. My wife and I attended the show, but we felt self-consciously like youngsters amid the older crowd, many in their seventies or older. These were hard-core Capitol Step fans who have listened to them on National Public Radio since the 1980s.

Unfortunately, the Capitol Steps’ performance was not that amusing, presenting a lackluster musical performance and staid comic impersonations of Trump, Hillary, Bill, Sessions, Bernie, and others. Many of the songs borrowed for their parodies were rather old, giving the impression that the group is now behind the times. Also, the lyrics often simply retreaded what has become standard comic shtick concerning the usual stable of politicos. Wham’s 1984 hit “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” became “Wake Me Up in Mar-O-Lago” about Trump, Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 “I Will Survive” became “Hillary Will Survive”, and Bing Crosby’s 1936 “Pennies from Heaven” became “Pence is from Heaven”.

These song parodies did not compare with previous Capitol Steps songs, such as “A Whole Newt World”, about Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America; “Unzippin’ My Doo-Dah”, about President Bill Clinton; and “I Enjoy Being Al Gore”, about…Al Gore. The more important and conspicuous issue was that these songs seemed quite out-of-step with the news cycle. When I saw the 2018 performance, the ICE border scandal was saturating the news media, but never mentioned on stage.

Make no mistake, I love the Capitol Steps as much as any NPR listener. There were a few bright spots of creativity of the evening that were very entertaining, including:

“Stormy Daniels”

This satirical look at the persona of the Presidents former paramour was the Capitol Steps at their best.  The sensuous melody of “Stormy Weather” perfectly conflated the character of Stormy with the sultry performances of Lena Horne and Billie Holiday.  Hilariously, it referred to the size of Trump’s “hands” and her much less-than-orgasmic reaction to Trump’s bordello antics.

“The Most Fabulous, Stupendous, Fantastic Military Parade”

Breaking the usual format of stand-up comedy, this routine was very theatrical.

Four ensemble members march onto the stage giving the impression of a military parade. Each performer wore the head gear of a branch of the US military while holding cardboard representations of an Army tank, a Navy destroyer, an Air Force fighter plane and a Marine military jeep.  Dancing like an old-fashioned USO show for the troops, they sang the anthems for each military branch, but with lyrics commenting on President Trump’s plan for a military parade in front of the White House. The best line of the competing military branches was the Air Force’s lyric, “What’s the point I wonder/Bunch of boys showing off guns”.

“The Mooch”

This is a very clever adaptation of the famous Cab Calloway “Minnie the Moocher” routine into a satirical portrait of Tony Scaramucci, Trump’s very short-term White House Director of Communication.  With its deadpan ironic tone, the story of “The Mooch” and his fall from grace makes for great political comedy.

Overall, the comic style of the Capitol Steps is out-of-sync with contemporary politics. Old fashion political satire might not be appropriate for events that have made more than one news anchor cry on camera. Given the pace of today’s frantic and constantly changing news cycles, any satirical musical based on politics is usually out of date within a week. Perhaps the Capitol Steps will evolve a new form of satire to give voice to the current political angst.

Dan Reiva