Theater Review: ‘Dictators’ on parade at Touchtone Theatre
Touchstone Theatre is holding a “telethon” on stage through April 15 for a very unworthy cause, that is, celebrating political tyrants, and raising funds so that their children’s despotic dreams can come true.
The “Tyrants of Tomorrow Telethon” is the fictional setting for the musical satire, “Dictators 4 Dummies,” written and directed by Christopher Shorr, with input from his fellow Touchstone company members. The April 6 performance of the world premiere production was seen for this review.
The ingenious script, musical score and lyrics are based on Shorr’s own version of “The Fascist Playbook,” a list he has been compiling for years about authoritarian tactics observed throughout the world that he says are shifting the tide from democracy and freedom to increased nationalism, cronyism and corruption.
Shorr’s biting satire could not be more relevant as it exposes through the humor all-too-familiar ploys to discredit critics and the media, destroy trust in facts, say what people want to hear, tap into their insecurities, and polarize opinions.
The musical’s central theme, repeated in song and dialogue, is telling: “We can’t do it without your help!” and “We win only when you play along.”
The cast of four is equal to the brilliance of the script. Shorr is masterful as the diabolical Generalissimo Carlo Supremo, the telethon host, wearing dictator aviator sunglasses and sporting a disingenuous smile as he persuades his cheering studio audience (us) to support the cause because “We’re all here for the children.” He urges: “Like us on Facebook,” and provides #Ilovedictators.
In a nod to the television series, “This is Your Life” (1952 - 1961), Supremo gets a surprise visit on the set from General Jefe Pablo, an old friend turned adversary, played dynamically by Jp Jordan. Both dictators sing and cavort their way through some of the most uproariously funny scenes in the show.
Their shenanigans are aided and abetted by the Telethon Production Assistant, performed by Emma Ackerman. It is her job to manipulate the audience to applaud and laugh when prompted. Her perkiness is infectious as she bounces around the stage and invades the audience, selling dictator paraphernalia. Under her exuberant exterior lurks a dark secret. In making the necessary personality shift, Ackerman is more than equal to the task. Topping off her excellent acting, she also is an accomplished singer.
The biggest acting challenge falls to Mary Wright, who skillfully plays the “special guests” who visit the telethon. With choreography by Ashley Tail Weller, they [Wright] sing and dance extremely well to the latest hits: “Autocratic Tactic,” “My Way or the Highway” and “I’m Going to be a Bigshot.” To avoid giving away too much, suffice it to say that the guests are historical dictators who need no introduction.
Jason E.R. Hedrington provides music direction and plays piano. He is joined by Steven Barnett, Erick Black and Chloe Anne Madison. Besides ably meeting their musical tasks, it is fun to watch them as telethon orchestra members reacting to what is happening on stage.
Ackerman is responsible for the effective lighting design that requires an abundance of cues and numerous illumination techniques. Notable is the use of back lighting during Wright’s tap dance with a cane. Costume design was shared by Lisa Jordan and Wright. No easy task with wigs, headdresses, military uniforms and the visiting dictators’ attire. The dictator hosts’ final garbs are heavenly.
There are scenes in “Dictators for Dummies” that are reminiscent of “Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers,” and they raise the same disquieting questions: Should we laugh? and: Why do we laugh? It is perhaps the recognition of things that are far too familiar that evokes laughter. Or laughter acts as a release valve.
Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that satire gets its message across far better than any lecture.
The test is to make the points, but not to push them too far. In “Dictators 4 Dummies,” Shorr and the Touchstone cast have done a remarkable job of walking the line without going over it.
Tickets: Touchstone Theatre box office, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem; touchstone.org; 610-867-1689. Group rates available. Touchstone offers a pay-what-you-will ticket at the door, as available, allowing walk-up patrons to name their ticket price.