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There are many ways to learn about or revisit historical events. Living through them is preferable if you can swing that, but books and periodicals from past eras are probably the most common resources. However, when it comes to American politics and the scandals that quite often accompany politicians, no scholarly journal or pompous pundit can beat The Capitol Steps for a history of the foibles of those who profess to govern us. Those who are not hip to this group might be wondering who or what The Capitol Steps are.... Well, just think Weird Al Yankovic as a CNN commentator.
It all began in 1981, at a Christmas party in the office of former Senator Charles Percy. There have been changes in the cast over the years, but most of them have actually worked as congressional or senate aides. They have recorded 23 albums and appear on National Public Radio stations for holiday and other specials several times a year.
The Capitol Steps, while not quite a stadium-filling act, have such a cult following that Page Auditorium at Duke University was nearly sold out on October 19. Is it any wonder? With the political climate hot and heavy, the Steps have enough material to fill dozens of hours of satire. Just weeks before Election Day, the admittedly Kerry-leaning audience was anxiously awaiting a real Bush-bashing. The show started about 30 minutes late, and the skewering began - but against everyone!
So just what is it that they do? They practice the great art of satire by setting new words to popular songs, interspersed with skits given in some great costumes. Their impersonations are dead-on - and they have no mercy for their victims. While some people might get offended and believe that they lean politically to the left a bit, I believe that they are an equal opportunity detector of lies, deceit, hypocrisy, arrogance, and the many other beloved attributes of politicians. They also don't confine themselves to the current administration: one of their favorite characters is still Bill Clinton, and there were some current upgrades and jokes alluding to his recent heart surgery. There are no sacred cows, and they don't shy away from any issue or personality - as long as it's funny and has a good beat.
The current troupe consists of Kevin Corbett, Brian Ash, Brad Van Grack, Nancy Dolliver and Janet Gordon. They are accompanied on piano by Dave Kane, and that's it as far as their musical "background" is concerned. In an act of this kind, it is imperative that every single word be understood, and there was never a moment where this was a problem. Each performer had a clear, somewhat Broadway-style vocal delivery, along with great comic timing. This is an act that will never run out of material - just turn on the news and chances are within a very short time you will hear The Capitol Steps singing about the scandal du jour . Thus the material encompassed everything from Saddam impersonations to Martha Stewart in prison to airport security to weapons of mass obfuscation. But they saved their sharpest invective for the dullest knife in the drawer - the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. One of their best numbers was the tune "Maria," from West Side Story , with Kevin Corbett as George W. Bush singing "Korea" to a map of the world as he looked for the next good place to bomb.
This was a 90 minute, no-intermission roller coaster of everything you could possibly want in an evening of entertainment. The time flew by because you had no idea what to expect next but you knew that whatever it was would be something you'd never forget.
They make the most of very effective but not extravagant costume changes, a mixture of different vocal combinations, and occasional skits. When you see a talented group of performers like this, you realize that a simple concept, executed well, will always beat the fluff, excess and extravagance of other acts.
When the show ended, I watched the people leaving the theater, and all had big smiles on their faces. The members of the group came out to the lobby to sign CDs and cassettes and talk with their fans. Check out their website, http://www.capsteps.com/ [inactive 10/05], and watch the news. If it makes page one and is lurid, you can bet they'll be singing about it in their next show.