Emperor Strikes Out

Opening night of Guv: The Emperor Strikes Back, the New Scottsdale Playhouse was half empty when the curtain rose on this much-anticipated sequel to 1990's Guv: The Musical. Perhaps all the local Democrats had headed for Sun City to witness President Clinton's campaign stop there.

It's just as well. Watching the president's motorcade probably proved more entertaining than this messy and occasionally meanspirited spoof. Despite four weeks of rehearsal and a full week of previews, this parody of local politics plays like an industrial show at a left-wing political rally.

This third in a seemingly endless series of Guvs starts out promisingly enough. The cast, in clothing ugly enough to suggest a tag sale at Yellow Front, sings a reprisal of a catchy song from the original Guv, which ran for nearly two years at Mill Avenue Theatre in Tempe. Although the rest of the material is new, the entire first act rehashes the content of its predecessors. We're treated to a tedious travelogue through Arizona's lamentable political history, focusing on the unfortunate shenanigans of former governor Evan Mecham. The second act recounts the less amusing but more timely travails of Governor J. Fife Symington III, with nods to Richard Romley and Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Tent City jail.

Other songs by playwright and lyricist Candice St. Jacques Miles mock Attorney General Grant Woods and send up Symington's wife, Ann. We're treated to a staggering 18 songs by an all-singing, all-dancing cast that, for the most part, can neither sing nor dance. That the lyrics to these songs are printed in the program (in bold-face capitals, no less) is baffling until the show gets under way. It's then that one realizes that the theatre's dreadful acoustics render the vocals completely unintelligible.

A pair of ballads, "Getting a Wal-Mart" and "In the Early Morning Air," are nicely sung by David Hemphill and Julia Fordtner, respectively. But their placement in a show filled with spoofy, up-tempo numbers serves only to bring the proceedings to a screeching halt. Few of the other songs fare better, and several of them are inexplicable. The incomprehensible "The Mud Family" number, croaked by four men in frog suits, elicited only audience confusion and a smattering of polite applause. "Ann's Say," a vamp number in which La Symington renounces her husband's wicked ways, fizzles. I felt like I'd walked in on my 16-year-old niece in a teddy while lip-synching to old Dinah Washington records.

The dreadful acoustics and prerecorded, synthesized backing tracks don't help. Their tinny, tuneless sound is further diminished by body mikes that cut in and out, and a pervasive feedback buzz. The choreography is sloppy and predictable; I knew when I saw Robert L. Harper listed as the choreographer that one of the musical numbers would be a knock-off of "Our Favorite Son" from The Will Rogers Follies, a piece he manages to rip off in every one of his shows. Sure enough, it showed up at the top of the second act, but by then a third of the audience had fled.

Deadly pacing makes these shortcomings all the more apparent. The comedy, such as it is, is played too broadly for any kind of comic effect. And while one can't help but smile at references to Annette Alvarez and sight gags about pink underwear, the nonpolitical humor is pervasive, and some of it is just plain cruel. What's the purpose of taking a pot shot at deposed deejay Carla Foxx, who was implicated in a recent hit-and-run fatality?

It gets worse. The only Hispanic portrayed onstage is an offensive Mexican stereotype, a droopy-mustached Frito Bandito who requires a translator to make sense of his mushmouthed slurs. But this treatment of minorities is friendly compared to Miles and company's regard for homosexuals. In a villainous number called "Gay Black Hawaiians Duet," a pair of swishy black men wear grass skirts and call each other "girl." The duo returns again and again for additional campy asides and more dumb gay stereotyping. In a musical that takes the likes of Evan Mecham to task for small-mindedness, this sort of blatant homophobia is not only unfunny but stupid.

The biggest mistake that Guv makes is in not drawing the distinction between trashing minorities and chiding public figures for their professional fumbles. Too many of the cacophonous insults hurled at the audience are aimed at laypeople who happen to live in the desert. There's something paradoxical about a musical that spoofs the naivete of a city like Phoenix, when the only place this kind of theatre can work is in such a city, a place populated with people to whom the word "theatre" usually means only a cool, dark room where movies are shown. Guv's main contribution to Arizona seems to be in preventing its denizens from wanting to attend live theatre ever again.

Unless audiences refuse to be rooked into seeing this embarrassingly amateurish production, it will run through the middle of November. The $22 ticket price would be better spent in support of more ethical politicians. This would ensure not only an improved state of political affairs in Phoenix, but also that we won't be subjected to another sequel to Guv: The Musical.

Perhaps in anticipation of audience backlash, the songwriters do a little backpedaling with "At Least We're Not Montana," the lyrics of which suggest there are worse places to live than Arizona. For those who may have been offended by the affronts to their home state, this number is tacked on at the end of the show as a sort of off-key apology for the two hours that preceded it.

Apology not accepted.
--Robrt L. Pela

Theatre League's production of Guv: The Emperor Strikes Back continues through Sunday, November 10, at the New Scottsdale Playhouse, 7219 East Main.