2005_09_arts_monicaposter.jpg Far more than most presidential scandals/screw-ups, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair seems perfect for dramatization as a musical (though Les Freres Corbusier did do a good job with Warren Harding a while back, we have to admit). Especially in retrospect, the whole thing was too much of a farce even as it happened to merit the serious treatment an opera or straight play would be liable to give it now – it seems it was almost born to become a goofy musical satire. And with recent White House fumbles on certain disasters weighing on our minds, we more than appreciated the lighthearted fun of Monica! The Musical (book and lyrics by Daniel J. Blau and Tracie Potochnik, music by Adam Blau), which just opened in the NY Musical Theatre Festival. The production is less polished than some of the festival’s other offerings, some of which are well on their way to opening off-Broadway; as one of the producers explained at the beginning of the show, the set and costumes are mostly just “suggestive” of what they might eventually become. Fortunately, there are already a lot of catchy songs with very funny lyrics and the cast is hugely talented and energetic; it might deal with some idiotic goings-on that few people care about now, but that inconsequential melodrama is rendered quite laugh-worthy by this lot.

The title notwithstanding, Clinton himself is really the central character, and the show begins with him as a young man in an Arkansas field, prancing about the stage with his hoe and singing about his dream of becoming President. Duke Lafoon only looks like a young Clinton if you squint with watery eyes, but he does do a pretty good job on the voice. Megan Lawrence is somewhat more…delicate than Hillary, yet she has the steeliness and naked ambition down pat, especially once they get to Washington. 2005_05_arts_frenchie2.JPG The years from their meeting (in a great number called “We’re Freaky Deaky [And We’re Falling In Love]) until the first election go by in fast-forward so that Monica (the excellent Christine DiGiallonardo) can come on the scene. The other major characters are Betty Currie (played by Frenchie Davis, late of Rent but more notoriously of American Idol, from which she was unceremoniously dismissed), Janet Reno (Kristie Dale Sanders, in a mullet wig that made us cry for her), George Stephanopoulos (the expert Josh Walden, who didn’t need a wig to match the former press secretary’s famously good hair), and Vernon Jordan, who despite having a nebulous role in the Clinton administration and being made into “an egregious racial stereotype,” as he puts it, stands out thanks to Rashad Naylor’s skills. Oh, and how could we forget Ken Starr? Charlie Pollock looks nothing like him, not that anyone would really wish that on him, especially since he does do well at embodying the egomania and revenge lust that the writers highlight as his motivation against the Clintons.

Photo of Frenchie Davis in Rent by Joan Marcus.

Curiously absent, you might have noticed (or not), is Al Gore – perhaps his former incarnation was deemed too unlikely to sing and dance (unlike Gore 2.0, who would maybe even be willing to do such a part himself). That’s not the only gap that makes the story a little off balance – Monica gets almost no backstory and while she’s treated somewhat sympathetically, she’s also written as a desperate airhead, so we’d have to disagree with one of the creators’ claim to New York magazine that the real Monica would enjoy the show. She would probably at least be relieved at something that will disappoint any of you who were looking forward to some dirty Oval Office scenes: few of her encounters with Bill, of any kind, are shown, though there are frequent amusing innuendoes. Really, in the end the musical is more about bringing the Clinton presidency spirit – silly and shamefully self-centered, but also kind of charming in its eagerness to please – to the stage. The characters are given their own little dramas, some of them more true to facts and others just gags, but the atmosphere they create in Washington and the attitude they shaped nationally are the overarching theme, if you even care about the big picture in a satire stuffed with gleeful caricatures. Still, one of the best numbers, “We Spin,” is an example of this, with a crew of “reporters” dancing around with Stephanopoulos and Starr, and when the scandal breaks and Hillary, Starr, and Monica go on TV to tell their stories, an “audience” repeats their words, entranced. The musical has been through a long development period already (the book was just revised before this production) and probably needs some more tweaking, but like most of the people who figure in the action, it has its eye on the top, and unless you’re just a diehard Clinton-hater, you will definitely leave the show rooting for Monica! to make it.

Details: Monica! The Musical is at the Uptown Citizens Brigade Theater, 307. W. 26th St., through Oct. 2. Shows are 9/22 at 4:30pm, 9/24 and 9/25 at 1pm, 9/28 at 7pm, and 10/2 at 1pm. Tickets are available on Theatermania.