Mixed approval rating

Well-played election-season musical loses way in second actWell-played election-season musical loses way in second act

Matt Hammons plays a double-breasted Machiavelli.

Matt Hammons plays a double-breasted Machiavelli.

Photo by sean chen

The Fix, Sunday, Oct. 7, Harlen Adams Theatre, Chico State.

Politics is something that lends itself to being compared to other things. It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “Politics is like baseball” or “Politics is like showbiz” or “Politics is like sex.” Upon viewing the Chico State theater department’s recent production of The Fix, I have another to offer: Politics is like musical theater.

Sure there are the obvious similarities, mostly covered by the comparison to showbiz, but they also share some deeper qualities, most striking of all being an intrinsic unnaturalness to it all. It takes the same kind of suspension of disbelief to buy into career politicians pretending to be common men and women as it does to believe people communicate through song-and-dance routines as well as they do through dialogue. In fact, lack of dialogue may be what makes both politics and musicals so off-putting to so many Americans (although it’s probably safe to say there are far more fans of the latter).

The Fix is a fairly new addition to the musical-theater canon, having premiered in 1997. Through a script and lyrics written by John Dempsey and music by Dana P. Rowe, it tells the story of the fictional Chandler family, a dysfunctional clan obsessed with continuing their political dynasty.

The play opens with the death of Senator Reed Chandler (Benjamin Day), a consummate politician and presidential candidate who ends up dying in bed with his mistress. Undeterred from her own aspirations by her husband’s death, Reed’s widow Violet (Katie Isabelle Morrill) pledges that if she can’t be a president’s wife, then she’ll be a president’s mother. To this end she enlists her husband’s Machiavellian brother, Grahame (Matt Hammons), to groom her son, Cal (Mikey Perdue), to walk in his father’s footsteps.

This is, of course, easier said than accomplished. Even though Grahame is a political mastermind whose own aspirations to be a candidate are crushed by childhood polio, Cal is a sniveling adolescent with no interest in the family business. The first half of the production focuses largely on Cal’s semi-successful transformation from pot-smoking teen to cocaine-addled candidate.

Part of the school’s decision to do The Fix is obvious—timed just a month away from the presidential election—and the play’s first half makes it seem like a good choice. It’s rife with political satire, and all of the archetypes are present and well-played by the cast. Morrill is chilling as the selfish wife and mother intent on bending reality to suit her needs. Perdue is also great, handling Cal’s transition from unwitting kid to golden boy well. Heather Osteraa is hilarious as Cal’s arranged debutante bride, playing the role like a (semi-) sentient Barbie doll (as the character is designed, not for lack of acting ability).

Hammons shines as Grahame, whose frustrations with his twisted body (he stumbles about on crutches until becoming wheelchair-bound in the second half) and failed ambitions are externalized through the utter contempt and disdain he shows for … well, everything. Another highlight is Ashley Garlick’s turn as Tina McCoy, Cal’s singing stripper mistress. Also fantastic are the ensemble players and dancers who appear in varying roles throughout as reporters, nuns, soldiers, etc.

And though he is dead at the beginning of the play, Day’s Reed returns for two of the show’s most entertaining song and dance numbers, one with his son in a minefield (with extra kudos to sound and lighting effects during this number) and another with Hammons hilariously—and tragically—clogging along with his crutches.

Unfortunately, however, the play loses momentum during the second half, with much of the smart satire giving way to detailing Cal’s long descent into darkness, and too much time spent developing certain characters’ backstories after they’ve already been established. There are some large plot holes that unfortunately carry the work away from strengths that made the first half promising. This is through no fault of the players or the production, but simply a matter of writing.

In the end, the twists are far from shocking, and I couldn’t help feeling like the whole thing was a bit of a downer—further evidence for my argument, I suppose, that politics are like musicals.