Recently, President George W. Bush's approval rating plummeted to 32 percent, leaving 68 percent of Americans still puzzling over exactly what went wrong during that immensely troubled, highly contested election of 2004. Joshua Rosenblum's lively, witty musical Bush is Bad, prescriptively subtitled "The Musical Cure for the Blue-State Blues," is a delicious tonic for disgruntled Democrats and their sympathizers, put forth by three winning performers with a multiplicity of talents and personalities. With such a blatant title, it's unlikely that any fervent Bush supporters will find their way into the Triad Theater. But be forewarned that our current president (often referred to as "the chimp") does not, shall we say, come off very well here. Neither do his supporters, as the opening number ("How Can 59 Million People Be So Dumb?") announces. But if you revel in any chance to poke fun at the man in the White House, Bush is Bad is the show for you.
Rosenblum's material often has all the subtlety of a Saturday Night Live skit, but he has managed to stretch his political parodies into 22 impressive musical numbers. In a show billed for its comedy, the expectation for laughter is precariously high, and Rosenblum's writing rarely disappoints. Although several songs might arguably run on a bit too long to sustain their jokes, they are all, more or less, humorous. Director Gary Slavin also keeps the pace moving at a healthy clip, and his simple choreography works efficiently on the small stage.
Although he is the central target, Bush is certainly not the only victim of Rosenblum's barbs. There's "Crazy Ann Coulter," "Poor Jack Abramoff," and the mocking "Good Conservative Values" (exposing the hypocrisy of the religious right). The melodies, while not memorable, are serviceable for material in which lyrics, above all, are the thing. But Rosenblum also proves himself adept at parody, penning lyrics for a sumptuous German art song ("Das Busch ist Schlecht"), a hilarious Andrew Lloyd Webber send-up ("Scooter Libby Superstar"), and a Kurt Weill-ian torch song ("Sure, You Betcha, Georgie").
Kate Baldwin, Neal Mayer, and Tom Treadwell form a tight ensemble (pay attention to their precise three-part harmonies), and each has a moment or two to steal the spotlight. Whether masquerading as Ann Coulter or Laura Bush, the crystal-voiced Baldwin scores with her steady comic assurance. Treadwell, the most recent addition to the cast, makes a convincing Dick Cheney, as well as the man Cheney recently shot (in the disturbingly funny "Mr Whittington Regrets"). And Mayer, a gifted song-and-dance man, capitalizes on every bit of his stage time. He offers a snappy take on "The Gay Agenda" and delivers one of the evening's highlights in "I'm Losing You, Karl." (Anyone who remembers the 2004 presidential debates will appreciate Mayer's spot-on impersonation of Bush as he strains to hear cues through an audio transmitter.)
Even if you're not quite up to date on the current political scene, the cast offers brief explanatory segues before each song to clear up any confusion. And it's to Rosenblum's credit that, rather than stay content with dated material (the show has been running some months now), he continues to change music and lyrics to incorporate current events. At the show's conclusion, we were treated to some new material (in the works) that referenced the recent controversy over whether a Dubai-owned company would take control of New York City ports.
Rosenblum's mission, it would seem, extends beyond simple entertainment into full-fledged political activism. "The 'I' Word," for example, lists Web sites that work toward the impeachment of Bush. And as he gleefully shared the news of the updated 32 percent approval rating with the audience at the show's conclusion, it was clear that Rosenblum is in this for the long haul.
To watch Bush is Bad is to witness the power of the First Amendment, musical style. And although it's as yet unclear whether the show will run until, well, the end of Bush's run (or drum up sufficient forces for impeachment), the packed crowd at the show I attended (undoubtedly a fraction of the 68 percent) seemed delighted at the opportunity to, at least for the moment, laugh their blues away.