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North Carolina Public Radio WUNC: Hijinx and Hoodwinks Make

December 12, 2007 - Chapel Hill, NC:


Technically, The Capitol Steps are pretty basic. The set consists only of one grand piano, four mikes, and the iconic U.S. Capitol Building banner of the troupe gracing upstage center. This is their only backstage, and all five of the assembled members enter and exit from behind it.

The arrangement has been the same for at least the past 12 years. When you come to see a Capitol Steps concert, you come to hear. You also come to laugh. What you see is pretty much eye candy, in the form of hokey costumes designed to parody the characters you know and love. For the uninitiated, The Capitol Steps is a rather extended musical comedy group. But you could describe their concerts as a series of animated political cartoons, for the subject of the troupe's material is 95 percent political. It's also 100 percent hilarious.

There are a total of 25 members of The Capitol Steps, and amazingly the troupe has remained unchanged for all that time. This reviewer can personally attest to the truth of that statement for at least the past 12 years. He last saw them in 1995 on this very same stage in Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And they were all 12 years younger then. The other thing that indicates their staying power is that the excellent and tiny drawings of the members' caricatures are identical to the ones listed in 1995's program — which implies that they have never changed. Nevertheless, no two shows will be identical, because any combination of five may show up on your doorstep, once issued an invitation. And both sides of the aisle can laugh at the other; The Capitol Steps are an equal opportunity destroyer.

The tried-and-true stock-in-trade of the Steps is the musical parody, so you've got to be prepared to listen when you come. If you lag even so much as a beat behind, you will miss something. But the tunes are all very well-known; even those musically uninformed can identify these songs. If it is not a popular tune, it is from a revered musical, such as Gilbert and Sullivan, or Rodgers and Hammerstein. The basic tune is used to frame the unique, hilarious ditty that skewers, with staggering precision, a contemporary politician or current event.

Here are a few of the titles we heard Wednesday night: “Juan” (from the musical A Chorus Line); “I’m So Pretty” (from West Side Story) as sung by John Edwards, here portrayed masterfully by Jack Rowles; or “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea” (from The Sound of Music). Then there’s the popular song, an example being George W. Bush singing “One day I’ll find it, the Brain-Mouth Connection,” in a stunner of an impression by Kevin Corbett. Or the four liberals left on the Supreme Court, belting out the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” These songs are all genius, down to the last rhyme.

Interspersed in these witty treats are monologues by the top politicians in the news. Elaina Newport gives us the many faces of Hillary Clinton, her best of the evening being the “Queen of York” in “Shamlet: A Tragedy on the Hudson.” She complains of the dastardly foes she must defeat, like Prince Albert of Gore, or Sir Biden, or other such Dunce Inanes. She is joined later by her crafty husband (wickedly played by Brad Van Grack), who leaves the poor Bard shivering in his grave with terrible puns like “OFeelYa,” or “My kingdom for a whore.” He lays it all to rest with the terrible conclusion: “If thou wouldst punish me, get me to a nunnery.”

Every line is one to be savored, but they all go by so fast! Delores Williams, who comes equipped with an absolutely sublime set of pipes, swallows the pharmaceutical industry whole with her parody of the classic movie song, “Windmills of Your Mind,” when she informs us, “when your life is bad as mine, take 10 pills and then you’re fine.”

Wednesday night's concert [December 12, 2007] was brought to the UNC campus this year by North Carolina Public Radio WUNC-91.5 FM. There was more than ever could be mentioned in the evening, as these five tell us of our “American Pie,” which isn’t any more; it’s made in China. We also learn that Obama is “truly fit” for the Presidency: “Is he Black? Not very. Not like Whoopee Goldberg, more like Halle Berry.” We get this informative data in the song called “A Leader Like Barack.”

The only person who could possibly dislike this laugh-fest is he who is truly allergic to the Pun. If you are one, you will be calling for the paramedics before the show gets warmed up. But if you are a fan of wordplay, then Van Grack’s closing monologue (a staple of every performance) is for you. “Lirty Dies” is a litany of spoonerisms, and these are immaculately deadly, and not entirely printable, either. The troupe graciously supplies free copies of the monologue for all us fans. Even the innocents sound vaguely risqué, like “Enator Sedwards, with the tiny sheath.” Or “what a thupid sting to do!” Can Prillary be hesitant? Van Grack delivers without a single dropped syllable or even a pause. It is classically original.

The Capitol Steps perform live for public and private concerts, as well as radio and TV appearances. They have performed on “20/20,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “The Today Show,” and “Nightline.” They are a staple of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and for the past 16 years have produced quarterly specials for public radio and appeared in three national specials for public television. And if you are of a mind to have these tunes enshrined in your collection, The Capitol Steps have a total of 27 albums. Check out their web site at http://www.capsteps.com for more information on upcoming shows, bookings, and recordings.

The Capitol Steps: http://www.capsteps.com/. North Carolina Public Radio WUNC: http://www.wunc.org/front-page. Memorial Hall: http://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/aboutus/memorial.aspx.