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Theater | Theater Review

Fun and Games in a First Family

The well-dressed Kennedys play to win in a biting musical satire on the life of 'Jack.'

April 11, 2002|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Kennedys were famous for their games of touch football--a fun pastime that had the added advantage of enhancing the family's image. They all looked so rugged, so sexy, so American. How could anyone not want them to be the nation's first family?

Playwright Jim Tosney and composer-lyricist Tom Megan take that ball and run with it, suggesting in their new musical satire, "Jack," that the Kennedys tried to run the country the same way they approached backyard football. They played to win, and they looked so fantastic while doing it that a dazzled nation didn't look too closely at the family's otherwise troubling behavior.

In its premiere staging at Sacred Fools Theater in Hollywood, "Jack" is broad but biting--a bit like Vaughn Meader's generation-defining 1962 comedy album "The First Family."

The songs are neither memorable nor terribly organic, but like everything else on display here, they prove to be rather cheeky and entertaining.

As embodied by Robert Machemer, Jack Kennedy is impossibly handsome--in an Eastern preppy sort of way--with a gleaming smile that borders on a smirk. He was born for the camera, which will become an invaluable ally in his campaign for the presidency.

Although JFK is an attractive figurehead, the real power resides in Papa Joe (Chad Restum), who assures generals, Mafiosi and a distrustful J. Edgar Hoover (John Sylvain) during the 1960 election campaign, "We'll all make money on this deal."

The younger, smarter Bobby (Tom Chalmers) is better equipped to be president, but Papa Joe holds him back because he's not as well cast for the role--at least, in terms of movie-star good looks--as his brother.

The show takes a while to build momentum, but it hits a high point in the first act with a terrifically funny take on Jack's televised debate against Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon. John Bigham keeps his head lowered to make himself look jowly, and he sounds like the real Nixon as he mops the sweat from his brow and generally falls apart in front of America. This leads to a little ragtime number in which he asks: "Why does everybody hate me? Why do I make babies cry?"

"Jack" looks great, dressed in crisp, straight-lined period costumes by Ruth Silveira and Tara Keenan, and plays out against the backdrop of a world map--the board upon which the Kennedy family plays its little parlor games. Director Warren Coleman keeps the action crackling with mordant humor.

The real glory of the production, though, is its impersonations--the sharpest coming from Machemer, with his dead-on, JFK-like Brahmin accent; Amy Arnelle, with her surprising facial similarities to the real Jackie; Bigham, with his scene-stealing Nixon; and Ahmed A. Best as a hep-cat Sammy Davis Jr., who keeps helping the Kennedys, only to be shoved aside when politically expedient.

The show doesn't entirely come into its own until about its last 15 minutes; just when things are getting fun, the show, abruptly, is over. But then, that's just what happened with the Kennedy presidency, isn't it?

*

"Jack," Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends May 4. $15. (310) 281-8337 or www.SacredFools.org. Running time: 2 hours.

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