The Presidents

Local Arts Reviews


The Presidents: Oval Office Magic

Paramount Theatre, Nov. 9

Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min

Back in the early 1970s, when I was a wee slip of a lad (well, perhaps slip, but not wee), I purchased a Rich Little comedy album on which Little imitated Richard Nixon and his staff in a biting parody of the Watergate administration. I've racked my brain and searched the Internet to come up with the album's title, but I failed. Like most comedy and spoken-word albums, it has disappeared into the mists of recorded history, but what I remember most about the album is laughing -- heartily, uproariously, shedding tears of utter joy -- put plainly, laughing my ass off.

For those of you that missed Rich Little last weekend at the Paramount, you missed something truly extraordinary. In this play, penned by Ron Nessen and Loren-Paul Caplin and directed by Bill Castellino, Little mimics every president from JFK to the present occupant of the Oval Office, which was more than adequately represented on the Paramount stage by designer Michael Anania. No, "mimic" does not adequately describe what Little does with the majority of the presidents -- he assimilates them, embodies them, makes them his own so thoroughly and convincingly that you believe you're looking at the genuine article.

The play itself reads like a 40-year history lesson -- the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Act, My Lai, Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, the Camp David Accord, the Iranian hostage taking, Challenger, Chernobyl -- more than I can name. Through it all, in every scene of importance, there is Little, nailing the bluster of LBJ, the insidiousness of Nixon, the confusion of Ford, the Christian humility of Carter, the utter out-to-lunch-ness of Reagan. While he may miss the mark slightly on JFK and Clinton, he more than makes up for it with the others. For each, Little exited briefly to change his costume and make-up, donning an appropriate wig (Ford's bald head was particularly amusing) and, for LBJ, Nixon, and Clinton, a prominent proboscis, and returned to amaze once again. At the end, just before the curtain call, he ran the gamut, letting the commanders in chief converse with one another, without the wigs, noses, and make-up, one after the other. It was pure theatrical magic.

Actors appear in the show playing the characters surrounding the presidents, most prominently Ginger Grace playing each of the first ladies. While some of these characterizations work, most particularly Christopher Durham's Dan Quayle, for whom he is a dead ringer (he also could do a mean Greg Kinnear), all seem to be pushing at Nessen and Caplin's pandering script, and none could approach Little's utter ease of delivery and master craftsmanship, made even more stunning by the weakness of the text. It appeared that each of the other performers was trying to match Little. A worthy goal, but all would do well to push their pride aside, watch Little, and learn.

At the end of the performance Sunday afternoon, Little graciously thanked the Austin audience, and suddenly from the back of the house came a voice, loud, resonant, and clear: "Rich Little, you rock! I've been watching you since I was 11 years old and you rock!"

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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The Presidents, Rich Little, Ron Nessen, Loren-Paul Caplin, Bill Castellino, Michael Anania, Ginger Grace, Christopher Durham

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