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There are many ways to learn about or revisit historical events. Living through them is preferable if you can swing that. Of course, reading books and periodicals from the era is probably the most common method. However, when it comes to American politics and the scandals that quite often accompany these politicians, no scholarly journal or pompous pundit can beat The Capitol Steps for a history of the foibles of those who profess to govern us. For those of you who are not hip to this group, you might be wondering who or what is The Capitol Steps? Well, just think Weird Al Yankovic as a CNN commentator. It began in 1981 at a Christmas party in the office of former Senator Charles Percy. Although there have been changes in the members over the years, most of the cast have actually worked as congressional and senate aides. They have recorded twenty-three albums and appear on National Public Radio stations for holiday specials several times a year.
The Capitol Steps, while not quite a stadium-filling act, do have such a cult following that the NCSU Center Stage series had to add a second show when the first one sold out. It was the 4:00 p.m. addition - also sold out - that I attended on January 31, in the attractive Stewart Theatre on the NCSU campus. This in-the-round theater is always a great place for all types of concerts and theater, and was especially well suited to this type of act.
So just what is it that they do? They practice the great art of satire by setting new words to popular songs, and they do skits and some dead-on impersonations - decked out in some great costumes - and they have no mercy on their victims. While some people might get offended and believe that they lean politically to the left a bit, I believe they are equal-opportunity detectors of lies, deceit, hypocrisy, arrogance, and the many other beloved attributes of politicians.
There are no sacred cows, and they don't shy away from any issue or personality - as long as it's funny and has a good beat. For instance, they had one number where the three men were dressed up as terrorists, singing the fifties song "Life Could be a Dream" but substituting "shoe-bomb" for the "sh-boom" of the original. Tasteless? Perhaps, but very well sung and quite funny. (OK, you had to be there!)
The current troupe consists of Kevin Corbett, Brian Ash, Brad Van Grack, Nancy Dolliver and Janet Gordon. They are accompanied on piano by Dave Kane, and that's it as far as their musical background goes. In an act of this kind, it is imperative that every single word be understood, and there was never a moment where this was a problem. Each performer had a clear, somewhat Broadway-style vocal delivery along with great comic timing. This is an act that will never run out of material - just turn on the news and chances are within a very short time you will hear The Capitol Steps singing about the scandal du jour. Everything from the Democratic presidential primaries to the Martha Stewart trial to airport security to weapons of mass obfuscation.... But they save their sharpest invective for the dullest knife in the drawer - the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. One of their best numbers was the tune "Maria," from West Side Story , with Kevin Corbett as George W. Bush singing "Korea" to a map of the world as he was looking for the next good place to bomb.
This was a 90-minute no-intermission roller coaster of everything you could want in an evening (or afternoon) of entertainment. The time flew by. You had no idea what to expect next but knew that whatever it was would be something you'd never forget.
They make the most of very effective but not extravagant costumes, frequently changed, using a mixture of different vocal combinations and sometimes just plain skits. When you see a talented group of performers like this you realize that a simple concept, executed well, will always beat the fluff, excess and extravagance of many other acts.
When the early show ended, I watched the audience leave the theater, and everyone had a big smile. All the members of the group came out to the lobby to sign CDs and cassettes and to talk with their fans. Check out their website, at http://www.capsteps.com/ [inactive 10/05], and watch the news. If something makes page one and is lurid, you can bet they'll be singing about it in their next show.