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Capitol Steps to mock current events at Grand Givers

No matter who or what is in the headlines, you can bet the Capitol Steps will tackle both sides of the political spectrum and all things equally foolish. What more would you expect from the group that puts the “MOCK” in Democracy and sings songs such as “If I Tax a Rich Man?” The comedy group is the featured entertainment at the 2013 version of Kehilath Israel Synagogue Grand Givers, set for Saturday night, Nov. 16, at the synagogue.

The humor is not specifically Jewish humor, yet some songs and sketches may have a Jewish flavor to them. One of the five performers that evening, Brad VanGrack, is Jewish, as is pianist Marc Irwin.

Capitol Steps will perform songs from its new album, “Capitol Steps Fiscal Shades of Gray,” which will also be on sale that night. The group began more than 30 years ago, in 1981, as a group of Senate staffers who set out to satirize the very people and places that employed them. Although not all of the current members of the Steps are former Capitol Hill staffers, taken together the performers have worked in a total of 18 Congressional offices and represent 62 years of collective House and Senate staff experience.

Elaina Newport, who writes the show along with Mark Eaton, explained the show is a mix of songs and skits.

“For anyone who hasn’t seen our show, it’s the only place you can see Joe Biden sing a rock song and Barack Obama sing a show tune and Chris Christie do a classical ballet all on one stage,” she said.

You don’t really need to be a total news junkie to enjoy it.

“We will explain the news to you,” she said.

Speaking from her office in what she has dubbed “Capitol Steps World Headquarters,” in Washington, D.C., Newport said they perform about 400 shows each year, basically one every day along with an occasional lunch and dinner performance.

“We actually did a breakfast show the day the shutdown started. It was funny because it was Oct. 1 and Sept. 30 at midnight I was sitting at my computer with my hand on the send button getting ready to send lyrics to performers who, depending on whether or not the shutdown occurred at midnight, needed to know what the jokes were going to be,” Newport said.

As happens with anything involving current events, things often happen so quickly that performers have to find ways to learn their lines quickly or “cheat” their way through the performance.

“For example when Anthony Weiner tweeted his underwear, I wrote a song in the afternoon for an evening performance and I said to the woman, ‘Look, you can put this on your cell phone and you can look at your cell phone while you’re singing because you can pretend you are looking at the tweet that you got from Anthony Weiner.’ That worked perfectly,” Newman said.

Even in times when the material is so fresh and topical that the performers just plain don’t know it, Newman said the audience is entertained.

“One time we had a performer turn around and tell the audience, ‘You think this is easy? I just got this this afternoon.’ The audience just loved that moment because they knew the issue was very new. Then she backed up and started over. We get it done,” Newport said.

The Jewish VanGrack has been performing with Capitol Steps about 22 years. He travels all over the country with the group and enjoys the experience.

“It’s really great when people are laughing. Especially when it’s a big crowd it’s really fun,” said VanGrack, whose bio reports he is equally at home performing Shakespeare in London as musical comedy in Atlantic City. He was chosen by Playbill online as the best featured actor in a musical for the Capitol Steps Off-Broadway at the Houseman Theatre.
VanGrack regularly gets to play 10 to 15 characters a night, noting it could be a fun challenge.
“We get to wear lots of wigs,” said the performer, who also works in commercials, TV and film and is characterized as an accomplished director.
His Jewishness isn’t really a factor in too many Capitol Steps sketches.
“There’s only so many Joe Lieberman parts I can really do, he’s not even in the news these days,” VanGrack said.
“We used to have this great number with Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat and then the guy that replaced him. It was very funny to the tune of ‘Hava Nagila’ called ‘We Have a No Deal.’ That was a cute number,” he said.
He has done some writing for the show, including a Jewish number he wrote to the tune of “Heaven, I’m in Heaven.” He launched right into the song during the telephone interview.
“Hebron, I’m in Hebron, where we built 6,000 houses since just last week. And it tends to make Yasser kind of freak, when we’re out in Hebron doing sheik to sheik.”
Since the show is a still a little more than a week away, VanGrack isn’t exactly sure what they will make fun of. He guesses the Affordable Care Act website will continue to be a hot topic. He said, “We have a great song to the tune of ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him,’ called ‘I Don’t Know How to Log In.’ ” that he suspects will be performed.
If you’re worried you won’t be able to easily pick him out of the cast, he’s the one who gets to perform the show’s centerpiece, the “Backwards Talk.”
“It’s really fun and it’s probably even harder than learning Hebrew!”
He said the audience should pay attention to the accompaniment provided by Irwin, a “nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who is a fantastic pianist.”
Writer Newman said the Steppers’ success can be credited to the politicians who are “so darn funny all the time.”
“They always give us material. You never run out of new things to do and people do love to laugh at Washington.”

Grand Givers info

Grand Givers is Kehilath Israel Synagogue’s largest annual fundraiser. It is chaired by Drs. Michael and Shari Sokol. The evening begins with wine and appetizers at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16, and concludes with a dessert reception and a chance to meet the entertainers. The program begins at 7:30 p.m.; all food will be supervised by the Vaad HaKashruth.
Contact the K.I. office at 913-642-1880 to purchase tickets.