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There is a moment midway through the first act of The Fix when this frenetic new musical’s creators deliver precisely the rush promised by their drug-oriented title. It comes just after a scene in which reluctant young politico Cal Chandler (Stephen Bienskie, who looks remarkably like that other Chandler on Friends) gets tutored by experts in the myriad tricks of speech delivery. They teach him the gestures, inflections, and body language used by politicians to mesmerize their audiences and then thrust him toward a podium so he can try them out.
Standing with his back toward the theater audience, facing an unseen crowd, he sings the lyrics to a syrupy anthem called “I See the Future” as they scroll before him on a teleprompter, complete with highlighted instructions about gestures. “I see us striving for the sky,” he keens to an appropriately soaring melody, and when the teleprompter says “Head up, to the right,” he obeys. As he continues to follow instructions telling him to “point with left fist” and “look left, down to children,” what’s striking is how wooden and mechanical these gestures seem when you’ve been alerted that they’re coming.
Then, just as you’re dismissing them, and him, and politics, and the whole damn enterprise, the podium spins 180 degrees so that Cal is facing the theater audience. And though you can still read the teleprompter’s instructions before the lad acts them out, there is, abruptly, an electrifying difference in the effect of his gestures. What seemed broad and patently manufactured from behind seems entirely persuasive from out frontnatural, reassuring, and comfortingly human. Very much before your eyes, this callow automaton who barely understands the syllables he’s uttering has been transformed into a Great Communicator.
Sure, the composer has helped him out with a key shift, and the lighting designer has subtly enhanced his cheekbones, but that just makes the show’s point more neatly. In politics, as in showbiz, spin counts. Sparkle, too. And once politicians have internalized that fact and can use it to their advantage, it’s like a drug. That’s the “fix” that drives them. And that ought to be the fix that drives The Fix. For this one vividly theatrical sequence, it does. But that’s not nearly long enough to sustain the evening.
Savaged by critics at its London debut a year ago (“Bold, brash, banal” said the Evening Standard in a comparatively kind review) and much revised for its American premiere, The Fix is a political-dynasty musical that means to be a hybrid of Evita, Primary Colors, Oedipus Rex, and Oliver Stone’s JFK.
And in Eric D. Schaeffer’s bristlingly inventive production at Signature, it’s pretty much on track to achieving that odd mix of elements for about 90 of its 140 minutes. Then, just a few seconds before intermission, the authors take it into their heads to detour into GoodFellas territory, and, sad to say, a chorus of zoot-suited mobsters proves one ingredient too many for a story that’s already trafficking in politics, drugs, sex, graft, strippers, prostitutes, thwarted ambition, and showbiz references to everything from vaudeville to Sunset Boulevard. Real life may provide family sagas with that sort of variety, but theatrical ventures require a little something in the way of focusespecially ones devoted to fictionalizing recent political events.
So from pretty much the moment John Dempsey’s libretto brings on gun-toting gangsters to provide a deus ex mafia cliffhanger for the show’s first-act curtain, it’s clear that authorial desperation is setting in. And as the second act repeats themes from the first, trumps up excuses for a pair of Dana P. Rowe’s sobbing power ballads, and struggles to a peculiarly resonanceless, would-be-tragic finale that trades awfully callously on memories of November 1963, the show’s considerable flash and sizzle ebb slowly away.
That flash and sizzle, though, are remarkable at first, from an opening scene in which a heart attack fells Cal’s philandering senator-father midorgasm (Rockefeller allusions definitely intended) to the clannishly Machiavellian shenanigans (Kennedy associations equally intended) that make even so colorful a start seem pallid by comparison.
Naturally, a fatal heart attack in a satirical show like The Fix can’t keep a good man down, and Sen. Reed Chandler (Jim Walton) is soon rising from his mortuary slab to help his widow Violet (played as a campy blend of Morticia Addams and Norma Desmond by Linda Balgord) and his polio-stricken brother Grahame (devastatingly sarcastic, honey-voiced Sal Mistretta) make a pol of Cal. That the lad would rather screw, play guitar, and smoke weed doesn’t slow any of the elder Chandlers down. “If I can’t be the wife of a president,” snarls Violet early on, “you can bet your ass I’ll be his mother.”
So the grooming begins, with callow Cal proving a reasonably quick study once he’s been sent off to the army and done a nifty LSD-inspired, explosion-punctuated soft-shoe in a minefield with his dead dad. Soon he has discovered there are worse ways he could spend his time than making speeches and snorting the coke provided by his political team to keep him energized during long campaigns. (“Whatever it takes,” say Mom and Uncle Grahame. “This is what it takes,” says Cal.)
Events are further complicated when the political neophyte meets an entertainment-industry sexpot (Natalie Toro, in Marilyn Monroe mode) who unbuckles his belt practically on first meeting but proves to have a different sort of penetration in mind from the one Cal expects, blithely proffering a syringe and wrapping the belt around his biceps. From there, Mom’s job gets harder and Uncle Grahame’s so much more taxing that he’s soon scooting around not on crutches but on a motorized wheelchair. And, of course, those gangsters are waiting in the wings.
Rowe’s music tends to reflect the harsh, driving chords that Miss Saigon and Evita used when those musicals were in plot-progressing moods, which is to say it’s serviceable theater music, but it rarely soars. I rather liked the two melodies that do take flight: the aforementioned political anthem and “Don’t Blame the Prince,” which is one of five songs that have been added since the London production (all evidently designed to make Cal a more empathetic character). Still, I can’t honestly say I remembered either tune 20 minutes after hearing it.
Dempsey’s sharp-tongued libretto offers plenty of clever repartee for the three major charactersespecially Violet and Grahame, who often seem to be engaged in a competition to see who can drip more acid on everyday pleasantries. But the script’s political assumptions are mostly naive (journalists give plain-spoken politicians a free ride, right?), its storytelling is haphazard (Cal all but disappears when he tries to get straight, which is precisely when he becomes most interesting), and its wit isn’t enough to save a second act that’s going nowhere.
Seriously, nowhere. In fact, the songs become pointless enough after intermission that the performers must work overtime just to make sense of them. A second-act number called “Spin” goes so relentlessly in circles around issues long since made clear in the script that you can see why the creators decided to render it all but unintelligible by decreeing that Violet should deliver it drunk. Balgord’s a trouper, and she sells the song to the raftersway beyond, really, since they’re only 10 feet above her headwithout for a moment justifying its placement in the show. Ditto a gratuitous country-western production number that’s set up by a few equally gratuitous questions about Cal’s paternal origin. (If his real dad were a truck-stop rapist rather than a philandering senator, would this really account for his irresponsible behavior?) Sweet-voiced Toro must work even harder to sell “Mistress of Deception,” a number that seems to exist solely so that Schaeffer can make a Monroe joke by having a jet of air blow her skirt up during its chorus.
None of which diminishes the performance sizzle an iota. The 19-member cast is uniformly first-rate, full-voiced enough not to need the amplification that has been rather annoyingly imposed on it in Signature’s 136-seat house, and easily up to Charles Augins’ energetic choreography. With megaproducer Cameron Mackintosh in attendance at rehearsalsand reportedly anxious to take the show to Broadway should it click hereSignature’s D.C.-based designers have pulled out stops that local audiences may not even have known they had. Lou Stancari’s canting, disintegrating pediments, friezes, and columns grandly suggest both Washington’s monumental core and an amphitheater suitable for Greek tragedy. The electric blues, canary yellows, bilious greens, and hot pinks of Anne Kennedy’s aggressively angular costumes are enhanced by the riot of hues Daniel MacLean Wagner beams at them from every conceivable angle, including straight up from the floor. The visuals in The Fix are, in fact, a show in themselves, colorful to the point of overload. But then, they need to be, since the show itself is going to do a fast fade in its final hour.
Schaeffer’s knack for bringing out the humanity in musicals seems just what the show needs, and to the extent that the new songs all seem designed to illuminate character, he’s definitely pointing the authors in the right direction. What would help now is to bring Cal back into focus after intermission so that patrons can care what happens to him. Bienskie is currently working his personal charm fairly furiously without benefit of much in the way of material to hang it on.
It would also be nice if the theater audience were given some sense that the Chandler clan stands for something (or did once, at any rate), be it good or bad. That way, patrons would know whether to cheer or jeer their exploits. As things now stand, there’s no reason in the world to care whether a Chandler ends up in the White House. Which means The Fix still needs fixing. CP