Fort Fringe – Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar – 607 New York Ave NW DC

Remaining Performances:

Tuesday, July 17th, 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, July 21st, 1:15 p.m.
Thursday, July 26th, 5:45 p.m.
Saturday, July 28th, 7:15 p.m.

Running Time:  60 minutes

They say:  “President Warren G. Harding was a hard-living, hard–loving rock star. Landless’ 2008 Washington Post Editor’s Pick production rises again, written by Kyle Jarrow (…Scientology Pageant), from producers of Diamond Dead (2008 Best Musical Pick of the Fringe)!”

Derek’s Take:  As rock operas go, President Harding is a Rock Star is extraordinarily civic minded.  Not only does it remind its audience of a forgotten epoch in American history, but it also seeks to rehabilitate a maligned U.S. president, the feckless Mr. Warren G. Harding.  Who, now?  Why the handsome, inoffensive, and thoroughly conservative Ohioan famous for his “front porch” campaign.  Whose motto was a return to “normalcy” after the hardships of the Great War.  Who signed significant legislation on tariffs and was undermined by an incompetent cabinet that…  Zzzzzzzzzzz…

The show begins with a wonderful act of transubstantiation powered, in part, by Gypsy Tent’s infamous swelter.  That’s when our Harding (Andrew Lloyd Baughman) bursts from the wings and gives bearded, three-dimensional life to the Shepard Fairey-inspired triptych of the late president backing the stage.  After a beat, the music swells around Baughman’s form as if heralding the rebirth of Meatloaf’s stadium career and, soon, he’s belting out promises to make the crowd sweat red, white, and blue.  So what if many of the opening-song lyrics come out muffled?  The number’s silly and bombastic, more than enough to win over Harding skeptics throughout Fort Fringe.

It’s an auspicious start to a program that exudes the swagger and cheekiness of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  The conceit here is that Harding, an accomplished cornet player in his youth, has parlayed his renown into classic rock superstardom… with all of the sex and drugs that come along with it.  How else can we explain his decision to make the preternaturally corrupt Albert Fall his Interior Secretary?  Or his serial promiscuity?  Or his penchant for sticking his face into a bowl of crabs?  The script’s crammed with trivia and factoids that seem pulled verbatim from Harding’s Wikipedia entry, which might delight poli-nerds but seems unlikely to thrill pimply headbangers expecting to see a rock show.

The production suffers, simply, from a lack of songs.  When Baughman is pointing and shimmying with Fat Elvis splendor, or Justine Hall (as Flossie Harding) is giving it her Roberta Flack-best in a sultry fringed cocktail dress, the show almost lives up to its potential as a musical tour de farce.  But too often, the stage picture swings from its andrenalized musical core toward stillborn scenes recounting drips and drabs of the president’s life.  The poker sequence – in which Baughman and his cronies snort coke, gamble away offices, and slurp body shots (credit here goes to Ray Shaw and Mickey D. Daguiso for taking one for the team) – drones on for eight minutes and revolves around the mechanics of playing cards.  The same content, as part of a song and dance number, might have produced a truly comic outcome.

But that prospect only highlights the challenge Landless Theatre has assumed with this production.  It isn’t easy balancing the competing megalomanias of id and ego onstage, especially when your lead is a rock star president who predates the rock and roll age.  Landless, perhaps as Harding would have done, plays it safe and opts for ego over id.  A little less fidelity to the facts might better realize the show’s satirical ambitions.

See it if:  You want to say you saw the show with the ass-kickingest title in the Fringe catalog.

Skip it if:  Your checkered grade school years included multiple Fs in history.

DISCLOSURE: The author is a writer of/performer in Apocalypse Picnic, a show in this year’s Capital Fringe.

CORRECTION:  A previous version of this post stated that Mark Hanna orchestrated Warren G. Harding’s presidential campaign.  Harding’s actual campaign manager was Albert Lasker.