Capitol Steps: This political season, you need to laugh
LENOX, MASS. — If the political climate is just too hot to handle, gain a whole new air-conditioned perspective with the Capitol Steps satirical revue "What to Expect When You're Electing," now in its ninth summer at Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort in Lenox.
The five-member cast, plus one pianist, brings nonstop jokes, impersonations, song parodies and sight gags to each performance.
From humble beginnings 35 years ago as a holiday entertainment staged by staffers of Indiana's former Sen. Charles Percy, Capitol Steps has grown to some two dozen cast members performing up to four shows at once around the U.S. and from Puerto Rico and Canada to London. Many are former Capitol Hill staff members who bring firsthand experience as they lampoon their old bosses.
Like the political landscape, the brisk 90-minute show is constantly changing. Original cofounder Elaina Newport and Mark Eaton — both of whom also perform — write scripts and jokes with some help from the cast. Every political development and passing milestone, such as the recent conventions, means updating scripts, writing new songs, amending lyrics and adding or retiring characters. While topical fads are readily incorporated, perennial favorites like Bill Clinton never seem to lose their appeal.
A highlight is the "Lirty Dies" monologue that swaps the first letters of word pairs to hilarious, sometimes saucy effect.
Music is the mainstay of each performance. A snappy succession of popular hits and Broadway show tunes gain witty new lyrics (think "Greece" for "Grease"), while the pianist, one of five in the company, plays the entire show from memory with just a set list as a guide.
After a recent sold-out performance of swapping wigs, costumes and characters, two Capitol Steps veterans talked about bringing laughs to Cranwell audiences. Cast member Delores King Williams came from a background in theater, opera and a decade with the U.S. Army Band. After leaving the army to teach, "I went to an audition," she said, "and two weeks later I was doing this." Eighteen years later she is still going strong.
Morgan Duncan worked in standup and Shakespeare before joining the company 14 years ago. With few openings in the close-knit, dedicated troupe, "for 11 of those years I was the new guy," he said. While Duncan has impersonated Barack Obama for the past eight years, each actor is responsible for knowing all the material in the show. Once, the actress playing Condaleeza Rice was unable to go on right before the show. "There wasn't anybody else to sing it but me," he recalled. He made quite an impression, and "ended up doing it for a year and a half."
During the two-month run, every company member will revolve in and out of the Cranwell show. The Berkshires is a welcome break from their D.C. home base, Williams said, and they enjoy the opportunity to catch shows and concerts in their downtime.
This summer marks the first for Capitol Steps in the newly renovated Harvest Barn theater on the Meadowland campus across the road from the resort's historic mansion. With a high-beamed ceiling, raised stage and new lighting, the airy venue can accommodate 230 people.
Especially in an election year, the Capitol Steps is a magnet for both new and returning patrons.
"Between the political stories and the new space, it has been a win-win," said Cranwell sales and marketing director Deanna Mangiardi, who pointed out tickets are also available at countywide half-price ticket booths.
"Some people come every year to the show, because every year the political arena changes. Goodness, every day it changes," Mangiardi said.
Between elections and breaking news, scripts change with as little as an hour's notice.
"I've had to learn something new almost every other day for the last week, including three new songs," Williams said. "If something happens, it's all about what vehicle [to use] and what rhymes with it."
For many, appearing as a Capitol Steps character is a sign politicians have "arrived."
"The only time they get upset is if they're not skewered in our show," Williams said.
While the show is not mean, she stressed, no political party or personality is spared. "We hit everybody," she said. "If they're in the news we want to tickle that funny bone."
And, regardless of political affiliations, everybody everywhere laughs at the same jokes.
"That's what gives me hope," she said.
ON STAGE ...
What: The Capitol Steps presents "What to Expect When You're Electing"
Where: Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort, 55 Lee Road, Route 20, Lenox, Mass.
When: 8 p.m. nightly except Tuesdays through Sept. 2
Cost: $49 open seating
Tickets/Information: 413-881-1636, www.capsteps.com/live/cranwell2016.html
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