Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Theater review: Capitol Steps' brand of gentle satire proves durable

The Capitol Steps originated among U.S. Senate staffers.

By Hap Erstein

Dealings in Washington have become so acrimonious lately, there seems to be nothing to laugh about as government grinds to a halt. But that has not stopped The Capitol Steps, which has been poking fun at federal machinations for almost 30 years, putting -- as the group likes to say -- “the MOCK in democracy.”

The Steps set up shop at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse on Tuesday for a three-week residency through March 14. Although there is not as much fertile material as there was during the election season of 2008, these genial satirists will never lack for inspiration as long as Sarah Palin remains in the limelight, health care disinformation proliferates, and sexual transgressors from Mark Sanford to Tiger Woods keep supplying comic ideas too delicious to make up.

Most of the Capitol Steps' 90-minute, intermission-less show consists of song parodies of familiar hits from the pop charts or Broadway. Timeliness can trump an obvious rhyme, as with the plea of Toyota executives, Help Me, Honda (to the tune of The Beach Boys’ Help Me, Rhonda) on the day that hearings were held on the Japanese automaker’s quality control woes.

Then again, Bill Clinton is old news, but his brazen frat-boy demeanor is still good for a few laughs. And Sarah Palin is apparently the gift that keeps on giving to political comedy writers. Her recent note scribbling on her hand inspired a joke that probably works wherever the Steps play, but when she delivers a welcome note to West Palm Beach, it contains an extra joke since she reads it off her west palm.

You have to admire the mind that came up with a skit on rampant obesity and capped it with a song that puns I Wrecked My Heart With Spam and Crisco. Or the one that overcame the somewhat stale idea of pitting President Obama against his campaign rival Hillary Clinton by using a Paul McCartney-Stevie Wonder tune, newly dubbed Ebony and Ovaries.

Not every sketch works, of course. There is a generic number called Oprahbama (to the tune of Oklahoma!) that seems to have been born because it has the right number of syllables rather than anything to say about Ms. Winfrey or the president. And it might be time for The Steps to retire its Lirty Dies sketch, an extended monologue of reverse-consonants spoonerisms. If the show were on television, the Lirty Dies scene would be a cue to head to the refrigerator knowing you would not be missing anything important.

The Capitol Steps never really go for the throat in its satire and they carefully calibrate their act to target both sides of the aisle with roughly equal disdain. They give the audience credit for being up on the news from Washington and, for the most part at the Rinker on Tuesday, that faith was well-founded.

THE CAPITOL STEPS, Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sun., March 14. Tickets: $40. Call: (561) 832-7469 or (800) 572-8471.

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