‘The Fix’ at Signature Theatre by David Siegel

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“Public office is a minefield” so you better just “Grit your teeth, sell the lies” though “maybe I’m just too blunt to survive” are lyrics that provide some of the central posits in The Fix now running at Signature Theatre.  And, nope, while these read like ripped-from-headlines quotes from recent front pages of the Post or the Times, they are sound-bites of lyrics from a musical that had its U.S. premier in 1998 at Signature. It was during the height of the President Bill Clinton Administration.

Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

There is electric allure to Signature’s current revisit with The Fix.  The audience is treated to all a musical theater production can be. The production certainly meets my definition of being “over-the-top” and audacious. It is satirical fun, with Act I song titles “Let the Games Begin” and “Embrace Tomorrow” morphing into a darkness made acutely visible with numbers such as “Dangerous Games,” “The Upper Hand,” “Mercy Me,” and “Mistress of Deception.”

What this production has beyond the intensity of the entire cast’s in the moment acting along with marvelous singing chops and in-synch fluid movements, are these: Eric Schaeffer’s charged, shock-wave direction, the animated, very alive work of an eight-piece rock-show band under the pulsating leadership of Jon Kalbfleisch and Matthew Gardiner’s eye-popping, often heart-throbbing, sensual choreography that matches a lyric in each of the more than two dozen numbers in the score. An example of that choreography is a riff off the words “Sing Hallelujah” that becomes way more than a Church-based stroll up the aisle.

And there certainly is a plentitude of razzle-dazzle to cover the book’s weaknesses, and some musical numbers getting in the way of forward progress along with cultural and visual references that hark back at least 50 years and may well bring a skip of the heart to a Baby Boomer, but probably will be missed by a Millennial.

But, looking even deeper through the Signature Theatre’s production’s magnetic draw is a “reveal” of ugly excesses, family secrets, scandals to cover-up, sexual desires that go fulfilled or unfulfilled, cocaine and heroin, and the Mob. All these covering a very deep cynicism about the US political system that are in the original material.  It gives off an almost acrid reeking that leeks from the book by John Dempsey and music/lyrics by Dana P. Rowe. “But deep in the night, We drop this deceit, And find ourselves moving to a dangerous beat!”

Bobby Smith (Senator Reed Chandler), Christine Sherrill (Violet Chandler), and Lawrence Redmond (Grahame Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Bobby Smith (Senator Reed Chandler), Christine Sherrill (Violet Chandler), and Lawrence Redmond (Grahame Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

So, let’s give a quick synopsis of The Fix.  Know that there are a bevy of characters with a plentitude of DSM-IV diagnosis that would enrich any mental health provider. At the very top of the show, a U.S. senator and Presidential candidate, Reed Chandler (Bobby Smith) dies while in bed with his mistress  He will be far from forgotten or unseen.  Smith is a brightening presence throughout the production even when at his most evil.

At his funeral, his widow, the ambitious Violet (Christine Sherrill, a gem of a cold, film nourish, “full-of-brass” presence with a rather sticky secret to keep hidden away), seeks out her brother-in-law, a leg-brace wearing survivor of polio named Grahame Chandler (Lawrence Redmond,  with a wonderfully sharp bite in just about all his line deliveries until his own secret is unveiled). Violent wants Grahame to take her rather uninspired son, Cal (Mark Evans, with a gorgeous voice of a nightingale covering his character’s darkness), under his wing and guide him through the political world.  If she is not to be the wife of a President, perhaps Violet will become the mother of a President.

Young Cal wins elections and is on his way. Cal has some addictions, is unfaithful to his arranged marriage wife Deborah, as he meets-up with a club singer named Tina (a striking Rachel Zampelli as a woman used and deceived by the men in her life). There is even a Mob Boss (Dan Manning having fun). Life including alcohol, drugs and infidelity take a toll on Cal, even as the media have an on-and-off infatuation with his blunt, “simple” ways of talking. “Can this be the end? Is this all it brings?”

There are a slew of other characters parading through the production including a spot-on Will Gartshore as Bobby “Cracker” Barrel a man with a long-ago connection to Violet, Stephen Gregory Smith as an erstwhile “body guard” for Cal, Matt Conner as an accented made-man, as well as a delightfully comic Tracy Lynn Olivera as Cal’s media/speech coach, and Jessica Lauren Ball as Cal’s arm-candy arranged marriage wife. Nickolas Vaughan has several scenes where he totally lights up the house with his effortless appearing dance work and smooth voice skills even when barking out orders as an Army Sergeant.

 Lawrence Redmond (Grahame Chandler) and Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Lawrence Redmond (Grahame Chandler) and Mark Evans (Cal Chandler). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The scenic design for The Fix is the façade of a White House-like structure by way of Misha Kachman. The action takes place generally in front of the columns of the facades along with well-used projections and video design by Hannah Marsh. Costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski and wig design by Dori Beau Seigneur give each character a clear visual presence with Sherrill and Zampelli especially dressed to give off their character’s deep, conflicted inner being. Ryan O’Gara’s lighting design and Lane Elms’ sound design add distinctive appeal to the overall production.

One cannot walk away, pissed-off and blow-off The Fix as being too cynical, though I at first wanted to. Each day brings forth from the front pages of the Post and the Times, what is apparently now in the mind-set of many Americans. It is a sense that The Fix’s 1998 fictional corrosive stench is what the government here in DC is and their elected officials are right now. Politicians “play a game” and The Fix is a musical production working very hard to convince us of the power of spin in American politics. For me, I certainly was well-entertained; but not convinced. I guess we shall see in the current run-up to 2016.

The beat goes on in The Fix, a mocking commentary about U.S. politics.  Perhaps Dempsey and Rowe can meet up with Barbara  Garson. Unfortunately, Bertolt Brecht‘s lyrics to music by Kurt Weill are long since gone from us.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes, plus one 15-minute intermission.

The Fix plays through September 20, 2015 at Signature Theatre — 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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