What if noted Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin mounted a popularity contest to determine history’s most beloved president? Pageant, musical and murder mystery all in one, Sophisticated Rogue media has set out to explore this very scenario in its World Premiere of Presidential Suite! Set on a Sunday afternoon at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, the musical opens with “Mistress of Ceremonies” Goodwin, played by a commanding and tenacious Kim Reed, rehearsing the recited rules to the studio and television audience alike as to when, and where to text their votes in order to elect their favorite, already elected president (i.e. “non-candidate” as I will dub them for the remainder of the evening). Whoever wins, according to Goodwin, “will receive a week’s worth of documentary/celebratory programming, a donation to their presidential library and a biography, authored by me.”
Written by the texturally talented Bill Norrett and Matthew Hoffman, directed by Norrett with vast and vibrant music composed by David P. Johnson, presidents range from a statuesque and dignified George Washington, played by a stately Jim Schendel, President Thomas Jefferson, portrayed lyrically and romantically by Matthew Hoffman, a deliciously bulldoggish and irascible Andrew Jackson brought to us by the equally fiery Bradley Thomas Kuykendall, President Abraham Lincoln played shamelessly and hilariously by a decidedly Ted Nugent-voiced Edgar Allan Poe IV, President Theodore Roosevelt, looking rather svelte, but similar as his younger image, by a notably skinny and talented Alex Walters, a very likeable, somewhat Teddy Bearish version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt played by John Eddings, President Harry S. Truman portrayed very affably and somewhat gently by Irwin Moskowitz, to most recent president John F. Kennedy played by a dogged Abbott Alexander.
The musical opens with Goodwin establishing herself as the Mistress of Ceremonies all the while explaining her concept to stage manager Lorraine Washington, played by an earnest and steadfast Shae Wilson, and her Harry Potteresque assistant Kevin portrayed by a tenacious Adam Neubauer. “I’m the reason they’re here. Wherever I go, they go. Then it hit me, wouldn’t America benefit by seeing all these great minds interact?”
Unbeknownst to the unwitting presidents, the ceremony commences like any soon-to-be televised pageant: with rehearsal–but not before an argument ensues over who gets the presidential suite—and why there is only one presidential suite—Hmmm… Andrew Jackson then challenges Teddy Roosevelt to a duel after he allegedly insults his wife and it is finally determined that Goodwin will retain the suite all for herself but only before some pushback from FDR hurled Teddy Roosevelt’s and Lincoln’s direction as he declares, “You won’t find me on Rushmore, heck I’m only on the dime…I only had the Great Depression, you had the Union Secession.”
Presidential mettle is finally put to the official test as Goodwin declares, “Places everyone: 3 am Phone Call” at which point a red and white striped, mattress-clad bed is wheeled onstage, topped off by a navy blue pillow emblazoned with the presidential seal.
“Why don’t we start with the most recent so I can demonstrate how to use the phone?” quips Kennedy as all contenders, at the instruction of Goodwin, prepare to be “presented with a (middle-of-the-night) crisis with 30 seconds to respond”.
Jefferson, one of the first contestants, seems quite cock-sure of his technological expertise despite Kennedy’s skepticism as he answers, “Please make it known what message you bring forth via this telephonic device.”
Truman’s solutions only rouse George Washington to declare, “It’s one thing to bomb Japan but to bomb onstage…?” Kennedy, wanting to make sure all nocturnal reenactments are most thorough and precise, alights the bed only to query, “What do most presidents do in bed…?” to which Goodwin can only respond, “Oh Jack!”
Debates are rehearsed with much swiftness and brevity, primarily due to the non-candidates’ impatience surrounding them. Jefferson attempts to end his by stating, of his opponent, “(I have known great men such as Adams and Madison and) you Sir are neither Adams nor Madison.”
FDR, irritated that he cannot smoke during his deliberation, exclaims, “(Smoking not permitted onstage?) But it’s allowed in the Casino 5 feet from here!”
Andrew Jackson, fielding a five-year- old’s question regarding the perceived overabundance of homework in the schools loses his patience A.) at having to answer said question in the first place and B.) by declaring, “This format is deceptive”, thusly kicking off the first act finale song, Political Debate. “In my rebuttal, my tone will be not subtle in this shell game we call debate… The public isn’t buying all the platitudes and lying when we spin 180 degrees (in this political debate).” Eventually the post-song lamentation is rounded out as one of the non-candidates simply calls out to ol’ George, “Washington, I told you the two party system would be the death of politics.”
(As all non-candidates sling their planned and not-so-planned banter, one certainly hopes this discord won’t rear its ugly head in the musical/talent competition referenced later on. After all, they can’t all have the same taste in tunage…or play the same instrument, nor will they be capable of arguing whilst attempting to lay down tracks on a tuba. And, as to the swimsuits–is it a possibility they all look fetching in blue?–or just blah. Naaah! Concerning the evening gowns…? Well, let us simply surmise that if J. Edgar Hoover had ever taken the official oath, he would additionally have taken the competition!)
Suddenly just as Act I draws to a close, and without warning, all lights in the theatre extinguish. There is a gunshot, and the lights reignite only to assist in the audience’s and characters’ discovery alike that one of the presidential non-candidates has been shot!
The second act opens with the feet of said non-candidate, presumably now also undead being dragged off the stage with the balance of this musical focusing on unraveling the mystery as to “whodunnit”? (Oh man, this is gittin’ GOOD!)
Andrew Jackson, the logical, musket wielding choice, is confronted by an emboldened, “once police commissioner for New York”, Teddy Roosevelt as he commands, “Confess Jackson!”
Jackson eventually gives up his gun but not before engaging in one of the most memorable ditties of the evening, “RAPsody in Drew”, the gangsta rap song to end all gangsta rap songs before gangsta rap had ever begun! “Callin’ all colonies, represent…South Side Style,” he intones as the song gears up to an inevitable rap chorus behind his declaration of innocence by all other non-candidates of “No we don’t know Jack!”
Jackson is disqualified nonetheless and banished to the green room along with the other presidential corpse. (Let us hope there are snacks–but God forbid not anywhere near the corpse!)
Enter Ronald Reagan played by a perfect, and fittingly over-rouge-cheeked, but youthful, Jim Eshom, as though awoken to the calling for a replacement contestant as he declares, “Like I always said, no matter what time it is, wake me, even if it’s in the middle of a cabinet meeting.” He is followed swiftly by President Richard Nixon brought to us by a very apt and sympathetic Steve Nevil. Pale-faced, and somewhat downtrodden, looking a trifle bit like Ed Sullivan, (who really always resembled Nixon just as much as any fitting impersonator, so it all comes full circle) all non-candidates stare at the former “crook”, FDR lamenting, “Wait, how does President Nixon become an alternate?” at which point it is revealed that his legacy is an example of what NOT to do!
“A villain; that’s what this show needs…a ‘heavy’!” quips another non-candidate! It is Nixon however who comes in peace bearing vital information that will ultimately lead to the killer’s identity. Thereafter, all non-candidates seemingly regard him, as if awed by his heretofore arcane but logical wisdom leading up to his rather touching song of redemption, “I’m Not the Man in That Picture Now”.
Reveals Nixon, “Did you know that towards the end of my presidency, I used to talk to you all,” (referring to the Presidential paintings adorning the hallowed White House walls). Then, locking eyes with Reagan, “Well, not YOU. You were just an actor turned politician. I couldn’t believe it even then…” Lamenting that he let the American people down and was labeled a “villain”, Kennedy supportively pats him on the shoulder as he then sings, “As much as I would like to take a bow, I’m not the man in that picture now…” Even I am somehow touched, as is the rest of the audience. The remainder of non-candidates follow suit at the song’s conclusion, with one of them declaring, “Now I feel like a dick!”
Nixon’s lament seemingly spurs justice further as all non-candidates become even more bulldoggish in solving their now, undead, fellow non-candidates’ murder as Truman declares, “Poker faces, study them and the one who used the gun will be revealed.” Roosevelt swells ever dramatic as he bellows, “The play’s the thing will catch the conscience of the king!” And Reagan waxes reflective on the Chekovian Principle: The oh-so-vital theatrical rule of never showing a gun onstage without it going off but not before admonishing Truman to stop looking down so much as it damages his stage presence.
Does Goodwin obtain assistance in selecting an “MVP” (most valuable president)? Or does her concept arrive “DOA”? Does Nixon get his comeuppance as a man on the pictured wall? Is the murderer revealed? Is there a swimsuit competition to round out the debate and 3 am phone call along with Jefferson’s mad violin skills and Truman’s penchant for tickling the ivories?
For answers to these and other most compelling queries, as to the when’s, where’s and what’s of this Presidential Extravaganza can be found below:
All in all, a very fun and surprisingly patriotic, and even touching evening of theatre…