Politics, power and '70s pop

SLO Little Theatre’s "Watergate (and Other Solid Gold Hits!)" explores history, music of the disco decade

Special to The TribuneFebruary 21, 2013 

The fundraiser musicals at San Luis Obispo Little Theatre are usually fun, tuneful and light. But this year’s is different. “Watergate” weaves the music of the ’70s into a strong, compelling story — with a twist on real history.

The play by David Vienna takes us on a trip through a turbulent decade in political history, chronicling the resignations of President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew and touching on the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

The fictional characters interact with the “real” politicians, and 32 songs, with a live band and a cast and ensemble of 20, embellish the story. Actual news scenes with dates from the time sometimes appear on video screens to keep the audience on track. Kevin Harris directs the show.

It’s not a light scenario, but a scary story about politics and power. Charlie Memphis (Marcus DiMaggio) appears in the background of the first scene smoking a bong and later introduces himself as a naïve idealist. As he enters the political arena as an advisor to Agnew, then Nixon, he gains power and a reputation as a “kingmaker,” advising three presidents and becoming a principal player in Watergate and the resignation of Agnew, and his ideals fall by the wayside — big time.

 DiMaggio is terrific as Charlie. He has a great singing voice and is a strong actor, with star quality charisma.

His sister Kerry DiMaggio plays Jane Isley, Agnew’s right-hand organizer, who enlists Charlie into the Agnew camp. She is also good. All of the characters have strong voices for some of the iconic songs of the decade, which are skillfully interwoven into the narrative — for example, as Agnew bows out, the ensemble sings “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and as Charlie’s life seems to be falling apart, he sings “Dust in the Wind,” with the fallen politicians as his chorus.

At a peak dramatic moment in the story, the entire cast and ensemble perform a rousing “Galileo” chorus from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s fun to see Nixon, Agnew and Carter singing and rockin’ out.

Suzy Newman is a standout as Charlie’s boozy mom, a wound-down singer. She belts and emotes as she sings “All By Myself,” and rocks with the ensemble in the Elvis number “A Little Less Conversation.” She is a sympathetic character and a dynamic performer.

The fine band, situated above the stage, is directed by Stephen Tosh, musical director of the show. Its members are Adam Levine, Bill Wingfield and Steve Hillstein. They sound like a much larger group. Drew Silvaggio choreographed the many dance numbers, cleverly costumed by Sharon Woodside and Keith Wetzel.

Seth Blackburn is a believable Nixon. He has subtly assumed the mannerisms, the quick shake of the jowls, the gruff voice — and he has the eyebrows. Dave Linfield plays Agnew with a slightly sad vulnerability, and Ryan Loyd is a hoot as a dancin’ rockin’ Jimmy Carter as he sings “Don’t Bring Me Down.” Angelo Popecio, who is also a good singer and dancer, is Gerald Ford.

Two of the key characters in the story are newspaper reporter Susan Grace, played well by Khara Oliver, and Wilson Pickett of the CIA, played and sung by Wayne Gamble. Lester Wilson plays insider Tom Landford, and Logan Hull is the ill-fated G. Gordon Liddy. All of the members of the cast join the ensemble for the big song and dance numbers.

This is such a good show, with its combination of a strong historical plot and great music, that it deserves a wider audience. The focus on politics, which seems to be a history that never changes, makes it timely still. It would be great to see this musical recognized and performed for larger audiences, as in Los Angeles.

IF YOU GO

"Watergate (and Other Solid Gold Hits!)"
7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 24
San Luis Obispo Little Theater, 888 Morro St., San Luis Obispo
$35 to $50
786-2440 or www.slolittletheatre.org

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