by Gail M. Burns, June 2007
The News in Revue is a political satire troupe who have been performing regularly in the Berkshires since 1994. The front cover of their program identifies them as “[The] New York Times Meets Saturday Night Live, The Musical” and that is a fairly accurate description. Under the creative leadership of Nancy Holson, four multi-talented performers – two men and two women – perform 90 uninterrupted minutes of fast paced musical sketches about current political and cultural events (well, perhaps calling Paris Hilton’s stay in jail a “cultural event” is stretching it, but you get the picture.) Some of the sketches work better than others, but everything zips along so, like the Berkshire weather, if you don’t like what you’ve got just wait five minutes and it will change.
I believe Holson writes all the material – libretto, lyrics, and music – and she and Jay Falzone share co-directing credits. Some of the sketches are taken directly from Holson and Falzone’s recent off-broadway hit Bush Wars. Falzone is also the show’s choreographer and he appears in many of the sketches. Brent Frederick is the musical director, who is in full view of the audience and often kibitzes with the performers, as well as harmonizing on the vocals.
Falzone shares the stage with Stephen Smith, Shannon Turner and Amanda Danskin. Between them they portray everyone from George Washington to George W. Bush (Smith), Hillary Clinton to Paris Hilton (Danskin), Janis Joplin to Ben Franklin (Turner), and Karl Rove to Barbara Bush (Falzone). As you can tell, genders are frequently bent and no holds are barred.
Frankly, Falzone has real star quality. He is a charismatic triple-threat, equally adept at caricature, singing and dancing, with boundless energy. Just when you think he would be ready to collapse into a heap at the show’s end he launches into another vigorous dancing routine. This brilliance tends to make Danskin, Smith and Turner look slightly, but only slightly, dim by comparison. They fare best when they don’t have to share the stage with Falzone.
I hesitate to describe specific sketches because, like the news, The News In Revue adds new material and drops passé topics on a regular basis, but some of the stuff I saw will stay in the show for a while and it is well worth seeing. (For updates on the show click through to http://www.blogtheberkshires.com/newsinrevue/.) I was especially impressed by the energy of the sketch about John McCain, which featured Turner as Janis Joplin singing Me and Johnny McCain while Smith and Falzone presented, in interpretive dance, the cosmic struggle between the liberal and conservative sides of McCain’s political personality. Not only was the piece very, very funny, but there was great focus and emotion in Turner’s powerful singing. Great stuff.
I also thought the Job Fair sketch in which the recently unemployed Tony Blair (Falzone), Rosie O’Donnell (Turner), and Don Imus (Smith) harmonize on Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” was inspired. Falzone in drag as Barbara Bush, recruiting for the Army, Navy and Marines in an all-out tap-dancing extravaganza, with Smith as George W., was hilarious, as was his other drag turn as Ethel Mormon, bellows-lunged relation to Smith’s Mitt Romney.
The troupe claims it aims to be edgy not offensive, and I only found one skit to be so lacking in taste that it offended me. The Barak Obama skit didn’t work and used racial stereotypes reminiscent of the 19th century Minstrel Show tradition. Any good theatre historian will tell you that The News in Revue and its ilk are the descendants of both burlesque and vaudeville, which in turn have their roots in the minstrel tradition. Today we associate burlesque with strippers and “exotic” dancing, but the dictionary definition is actually:
1. an artistic composition, esp. literary or dramatic, that, for the sake of laughter, vulgarizes lofty material or treats ordinary material with mock dignity.
2. any ludicrous parody or grotesque caricature.
The News in Revue is classic burlesque. As an art form it is just as entertaining as it was a century or so earlier, and just as likely to cross that delicate line between funny and insulting.
If you are not the sort of person who enjoys being made a part of the show, don’t sit in the front two rows, as there are many times when the performers come off the small stage to generally abuse various audience members. Some seemed to enjoy it more than others the night that I attended. Perhaps they should have bought a drink or two at the bar before coming upstairs to see the show?
The News In Revue is now at the Mountainside Playhouse at Bousquet’s after eight years on the lower level of Olmsted Manor at Cranwell. I never saw that space but understand that the sight-lines were poor, a major factor in the company’s decision to move. While there are a few pillars to look around in this space it certainly functions well as a performance space, although calling it a “playhouse” is a bit of a stretch. It is a restaurant with a raised platform on one side and some theatre lights.
As you may or may not know, this season political satire troupes are not just alive and kicking in the Berkshires, they are alive and kicking each other in the shins. About a month after the News In Revue announced their move to Pittsfield, Cranwell announced that their space would house performances by the Capitol Steps, a group whose material is nearly identical in style and subject to The News in Revue, but who have greater national name recognition, possibly due to the fact that they record and sell their work, while the News in Revue, to date, has not.
I know the difference because it is my job. Most tourists returning to the Berkshires who want to see the News in Revue will assume they are still at Cranwell and go there. They will get a decent evening of political satire and go home happy, oblivious to the fact that they have seen a different group. People specifically seeking out The News In Revue will undoubtedly find them at their new location. But people not familiar with either group may pick the Capitol Steps by default simply because they have heard of them.
The two major differences between the two groups’ offerings is that the News in Revue has a $40 ticket and you can buy yourself a pre-show barbeque dinner for only $15 more, while the Capitol Steps show costs $49 and, should you wish to dine at Cranwell before or after the show, their regular restaurant prices would apply. Also, while the Capitol Steps will be swapping in different members of their various touring companies over the course of the summer, the cast of The News In Revue will remain the same. When you go to The News in Revue you WILL see Danskin, Falzone, Smith, and Turner.
Don’t think that The News in Revue folks haven’t included a couple of jabs at this interesting competitive situation in the show. From the two preview articles that ran in the Berkshire Eagle I see that both groups are skewering the same topics and nationally prominent figures with much the same liberal bent. The differences will lie in the creativity and presentation. Frankly, I think Holson and Falzone will be a hard act to follow. (I saw the Capitol Steps on July 7 and and you can click HERE to read my review of their performance.)
The News in Revue performs nightly except Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. at the Mountainside Playhouse at Bousquet's, 101 Dan Fox Drive in Pittsfield, MA. A special sunset barbeque dinner-plus-performance ticket is available for $55 (including tax and gratuity) with dinner starting at 6:30 p.m. Wine, beer, coffee and dessert will be available for purchase in the Mountainside Playhouse just before show time. Performance-only tickets at $40 each are subject to availability.
Purchase tickets online at www.newsinrevue.com, by calling 866-811-4111 or by contacting the Mountainside Playhouse Box Office at 413-442-8316. Group rates are available – contact the Box Office or Group Sales Department at 212-228-5245. All major credit cards are accepted.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007