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Stage Review : 'Ronnie' Resurfaces At Back Lot

May 24, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Since theater folk are generally of liberal persuasion, you would think that by now we would have had a half-dozen revues spoofing the Reagan Administration.

Instead, there has only been one: "Rap Master Ronnie." If the reader didn't see it at the Odyssey, the show has now transferred to Studio One's Back Lot Theatre, at advanced prices ($12-$15, plus a two-drink minimum.)

It remains a maddeningly uneven show. Its major purpose is to suggest--with a smile, of course--that the Great Communicator is out to lunch. It succeeds quite well at that, not just on the strength of John Roarke's performance, but because the writing is dry and funny.

Example: Evading an inconvenient question at a press conference, Roarke's Great Communicator slips into a personal anecdote from the days when he was a lifeguard. What he learned on that job was that, contrary to what one might think, people actually hate to be saved. It was a lesson that stayed with him all his life: "Never help a drowning man. He might make it on his own."

If this sounds like vintage "Doonesbury" (not to mention vintage Reagan), you're right. "Rap Master Ronnie" was written--the words--by Garry Trudeau. As a satirist, Trudeau knows that it's enough to show the chinks in your opponent's armor so that the viewer will stop looking on him as St. George. When that's what "Rap Master Ronnie" is up to, it cooks.

Every two or three numbers, however, the show stops to extend its sympathies to the victims of the Reagan Revolution. It's as if Trudeau's collaborator, composer Elizabeth Swados ("Runaways," "Nightclub Cantata"), had struck up a bargain with Trudeau: I'll help you make them laugh, if you'll help me make them care.

So, there are songs about blacks, women, street people, environmentalists--all those who have suffered under Reaganomics. If any of these numbers had the moxie of the great Depression protest songs ("Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," for instance), they might add an energy to the show. Instead, they drag it down, dynamically and intellectually. Most people who see this show don't need to be told that the fish are dying. They need intellectual ammunition against the policies responsible, and satire, in its little way, can help position their thinking.

A good one-third of "Rap Master Ronnie" is whimpery, lugubrious stuff--"sensitive" in the worst sense of the term. But then Trudeau and Swados will get on the track. For instance, the Great Communicator tells a wonderful fairy story about an American boy and girl who do the one thing that Daddy said they mustn't ever do: They open the Window of Vulnerability! And out there are these two Russians. . . .

Again, Roarke speaks with vintage earnestness. But throughout the show there's something odd about him. It's like encountering a figure in a theme park who turns out to be a robot: The gestures are just a little out of phase, the voice takes awhile to gear up. Happily, this one has a wife to cue him. We do wonder why Nancy Lenehan seems to be playing her as Pat Nixon, rather than the present First Lady, but maybe that's not her intention.

The strongest non-Reagan number in the show is called "Thinking About the Unthinkable." This concerns everybody's tendency, especially now, to tune out of politics entirely. Nuclear holocaust is indeed terrible to contemplate . . . so I'll do my hair. Here, Swados' music acquires rigor, Trudeau's lyrics are precise, and we see what "Rap Master Ronnie" could have been if it had demanded more of itself.

The staging, by Frank Condon and Bill Castellino, is much the same as it was at the Odyssey, with a bigger set (white porticoes and the presidential seal) by Don Llewellyn. The supporting company is a little scattered, as is the lighting, which at a crucial point on opening night failed entirely. Ronnie--I mean, Roarke--saved the moment with a joke about L.B.J.'s not paying the light bill.


A musical at Studio One's Back Lot Theatre. Presented by Scott Forbes. Producer Ron Sossi. Music Elizabeth Swados. Book and lyrics Garry Trudeau. Directors Frank Condon and Bill Castellino. Choreographer Castellino. Musical director Charlotte Lansberg. Set Don Llewellyn. Lighting Christine Lomaka. Costumes Lisa Lovaas. production stage manager Kate Hart. With John Roarke, Mel Johnson Jr., Roxanne Mayweather, Jeremy Lawrence, Melinda Moreno, Nancy Lenehan and Craig Zehms. Plays Wednedays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m., Sundays at 5 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets $12.50-$15 (plus two-drink minimum.) 657 N. Robertson Blvd. (213) 659-0472.

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