By Quinn Rigg
Now more than ever, we live in a divisive and turbulent sociopolitical climate. The call for harmony in a sea of dissonance can appear faint, if not at times silent; still, the people of this country are resilient in organizing and unifying to face the insurmountable issues our society presents. Despite division and dysfunction, the fires of hope are ignited by calls for resistance and action against injustice—calls for unity and equality.
With book by Sean Chandler and music and lyrics by Leo Schwartz, We the People: The Anti-Trump Musical aims to speak out against the morally unjust and ideologically hypocritical policies of America’s current administration, baring a hopeful promise of a new, united tomorrow as conflict is turned into unity throughout the piece.
We the People has no specific, focused plot; rather, it is a review composed of a series of politically charged vignettes, all interconnected by Trump’s wake of political disruption, chronologically moving from the beginning of his presidential candidacy, to the dysfunction of his current presidency.
Schwartz’s score is dynamic and entertaining, clearly supporting the occasion, content and theme of each vignette, aptly supporting the commentary and comedy of a given number with catchy melodies and varied explorations of style and genre.
The grandiose fanfare of the show’s introduction, “City on the Hill” begets the grandeur of tradition and convention that surrounds our long-standing political institutions, juxtaposing the dramatic irony of the public’s distrust in those institutions. The self-righteousness of America’s political elite permeates thereafter from the perspectives of the Republican party in “America’s Promise,” and in the Democratic party in “She’s a Woman,” both busy uptempo songs that precede the anxiety of the 2016 election.
Particularly refreshing is that, despite illuminating each party’s pompous lack of self-awareness, Schwartz’ lyrics remain relatively bipartisan, not placing judgement or blame on either party for pursuing their fundamental truths. On the opposite end of the bipartisan spectrum is the hilariously contentious “Love and Hate,” comprised of Democrats and Republicans jabbing at one another with acerbic bitterness and resentment, employing all of the cliché arguments of emails, bankruptcies and various other scandals.
This score thrives on the themes of contention and juxtaposition, as topics of serious debate with heavy social ramifications are made funny and ridiculous. We the People uses the tension within its audience’s society as a means to inform relevant and near-satirical humor.
Again in the vein of juxtaposition, songs such as “Perhaps,” “I Wake Up Every Morning” and “When Things Fall Apart” play a much more somber tune, expressing the beauty of realism and subtlety. The three dimensionality of the American people is acknowledged with sympathy and honesty. Within the context of a tongue-and-cheek cabaret expressing the political woes of this country, the bare and understated truth is that much more powerful and illuminating.
However, some of the lyrics, and much of the bare-bones book, lack a certain authenticity. Dialogue interludes during and between songs feel clunky and out of place in a show comprised of mostly music. Though these sections of over-simplistic and inauthentic dialogue are far and few between, they still distract from the rest of the show’s hilariously acerbic wit and grounded honesty. This is not, however, the show’s only issue with authenticity.
In attacking and criticizing the Trump administration, We The People heavily appeals to the diversity of this nation’s ideologies and backgrounds: From Democrat to Republican, immigrant to third-generation, poor to rich, perspectives spanning most of our divisive political spectrum are represented. However, it is precisely this manner of inclusion that leads to a problematic inauthenticity—the casting does not match the demographic of the characters portrayed in the piece.
Namely, there is insensitivity in having white actors portray people of color. While the inclusion of varying cultural backgrounds is not in of itself inherently problematic, the improper casting comes off as subtly racist, erasing and appropriating the identity of a people for the sake of “diversity” and erego counteracting the point of diversity.
Given that this is a new work, it would stand to reason that this insensitivity could be easily written out or written around. When a script forces a white actor to say outright, “as a Muslim woman,” the piece becomes that much less genuine, given that we must be told the character’s background in an inorganic manner; in such actions, the audience is reminded of the lack of representation in the cast, and made uncomfortable by the disingenuous outcome.
In spite of controversial casting, the talents of this cast are dynamic and engaging, strongly and convincingly committing to the circumstances of each vignette. Carmen Fisher Risi plays with conviction and dynamic comedic timing, engaging the audience with fun and honesty. Bradley Halverson shines with a grounded sorrow in “Perhaps,” wherein he reflects the perspective of a regretful rural Republican pondering the validity of his choice in voting Trump, and Elizabeth Rentfro displays hopeful resolve and a believable anxiety of the future in “Who Won?”
The cast is strongly united by the concise, clean and meaningful polish of music director Ty Miles, whose specificity nurtures organic and smart choices in dynamics, phrasing, and vocal blend throughout the ensemble.
Conceptually, this musical/song cycle has the potential to powerfully and authentically express the social unrest surrounding our political climate from a myriad of perspectives and backgrounds. The execution of this piece is certainly polished and professional with the directorial talents of Derek Van Barham. The lighting (expertly crafted by lighting designer Cat Wilson) is evocative and sharp, and the set by Theron Wineinger is brilliantly simple, powerfully playing upon the intimacy of the space.
In short, We the People: The Anti-Trump Musical—while fun, politically engaging and at times emotionally resonant—leaves more to be desired in authenticity and organic dialogue. With memorable tunes and polished performances worth singing about, the musical finds success in rallying its audience to stand up and speak out against the overwhelming dissonance of injustice.
Provided it covers representation in a more sensitive and effective manner in later iterations, We the People could be a powerfully unifying piece of political criticism and social optimism.
Flying Elephant Productions presents “We the People: The Anti-Trump Musical” through Feb. 10 at 1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago, IL 60657. More information and tickets are available here.