What were you doing on January 1, over a late brunch after sleeping off the festivities of the night before? Chances are pretty good that you may have been starting 2013 on a light note by listening to the Capitol Steps on NPR. New Year’s Day marks one of the satirical troupe’s much-anticipated four annual visits to the public airwaves, and its irreverent musical broadsides have been known to get plastered all over the serious faces of the major TV networks as well. Come on, fess up: You know that you’ve always wanted to see them live, if you’ve got a political bone in your body and even the slightest sense of humor. And now you’ve got your chance: The Capitol Steps are coming to the Bardavon on Saturday, February 23.
The genesis of the Steps is well-known: In 1981, a group of aides to Illinois senator Charles Percy decided to throw together a sort of edgy Christmas pantomime for an office party, full of skits and song parodies that reflected the tenor of the times from a within-the-Beltway perspective. It proved so successful that soon congressional and senatorial staffers from both sides of the aisle were being recruited to put on regular performances. Not only was it a good way to blow off steam for these brainy and ambitious young folks working in a pressure-cooker environment, but the Capitol Hill labor pool also turned out to be teeming with previously unmined singing, dancing and songwriting talent (not to mention acting, but that’s no real surprise).
For a long time, the Capitol Steps constituted a strictly amateur moonlighting gig for legislative aides only, but that era has passed; some members of the troupe are now professional performers. But the current lineup still represents 62 years of collective House and Senate staff experience in a total of 18 Congressional offices. There always seems to be someone on hand who can do a dead-on vocal impression of the current president and other high-profile politicos – and why not, since their jobs provide great opportunities for the kind of close observation that feeds the art of mimicry?
Indeed, there never seems to be any shortage of grist for the Steps’ satirical mill; the contenders for last year’s Republican presidential nomination by themselves easily provide an hour’s worth or more of juicy material. The group’s filks of familiar songs are always top-notch and topical, skewering donkeys and elephants alike, with new ones coming out all the time to reflect the flavor-of-the-month of political madness.
Stylistically, the tenor of the evening combines elements of Tom Lehrer, Forbidden Broadway, the news portion of Saturday Night Live and traditional British music hall. Worth the price of admission by itself is the short segment reserved for that guy who so brilliantly parodies House-floor pontification by delivering political speeches composed entirely of spoonerisms. Unless you happen to work on the Hill yourself, you probably haven’t heard such inspired and fluent gobbledegook since Eric Idle’s glory days.
Funny as they are coming through the ether, there has got to be a special infectiousness in being surrounded by a guffawing crowd as one enjoys the Capitol Steps. Maybe the collective experience will also bring home a sense of how fortunate we are to live in a country where people can openly mock their leaders without being thrown into prison or having a body part lopped off. The show begins at 8 p.m.
Tickets for the Capitol Steps at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House cost $40 general admission and $35 for Bardavon members. They can be obtained at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; the Ulster Performing Arts Center box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; at the Bardavon website, www.bardavon.org; or via Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.
The Capitol Steps, Saturday, February 23, 8 p.m., $40/$35, Bardavon, 35 Market Street, Poughkeepsie; (845) 473-2072, www.bardavon.org.