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Wednesday, November 21, 2018
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO“Dictators 4 Dummies,” April 5-15, Touchstone Theatre, Bethlehem. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO“Dictators 4 Dummies,” April 5-15, Touchstone Theatre, Bethlehem.

‘Dictators 4 Dummies’ musical is Touchstone world premiere

Friday, April 6, 2018 by LUKE MUENCH Special to The Press in Focus

For writer and director Christopher Shorr, the creation of “Dictators 4 Dummies” started as early as 2014.

“Dictators 4 Dummies” has its world premiere, April 5-15, Touchstone Theatre, Bethlehem.

“It began as a research into a phenomenon. I was looking into the odd situation of people not seeming to recognize these ... moves from ‘The Fascist Playbook,’ if you will,” Shorr explains.

Shorr, Director of Theatre, Moravian College, devised the original title, “The Fascist Playbook,” following a conversation with a Hungarian colleague about the rise of fascism in her country.

“So, according to curiosity and alarm to this situation, it took the form of writing down the moves of ‘The Fascist Playbook.’ I was recreating it, noting worldwide what people were doing, that these are what was standard for these authoritarian regimes to do.”

For a while, Shorr was unsure what he wanted to do with the concept, considering creating a series of songs to be performed in concert. When in 2016, he decided to turn the piece into a theater production, it only made sense to make it a musical.

For “Dictators 4 Dummies,” Shorr has collaboraited with the Touchstone Theatre ensemble, of which he’s a member, including Touchstone Artistic Director JP Jordan, and Anthony Crisafulli, co-playwrights; Jason Heddington, music director; Mary Wright and Emma Ackermann, actors, and members of Jakopa’s Punch, musicians.

“Part of the development of this was that JP Jordan, [‘Dictators’ co-star], went out on a limb and asked, ‘Why don’t you include it in our season?’ And this was before it was a play. So, I said, ‘As long as you’re cool with it being a concert, yeah.’

“When we were thinking it was going to be a concert, Jakopa’s was going to be the band. Now that it’s a play, the band we still have is a stripped down version of Jakopa’s.”

Shorr and Jordan take on the lead roles as Carlo Supremo and Jefe Pablo, respectively, fictional characters who are modeled after historical dictators. In the play, the duo are presenting the fictional “Tyrants of Tomorrow Telethon,” a fundraiser for up-and-coming dictators, with infamous individuals such as Joseph Stalin making guest appearances.

“Well, you know, no one [dictator] has it all. Everyone has their specialties, and I started with the grand list of tactics and figuring out who could I put on stage to speak to these tactics.

“By creating two fictional dictators, the South American revolutionary type and the persnickety European type, it allowed me to fit some ideas into these characters that weren’t so tidily fit into others, and gave me license to address whatever issues I wanted.”

Each of the songs featured in the musical looks to address different tactics and aspects found in the individual singing it, with the genre largely reflecting the character.

“While the music as a whole falls squarely in the classical, Broadway musical tone overall, as characters and nationalities started to emerge, so did new aspects to the songs.

“The dictator I play, Carlos Supremo, is self-styled after Mussolini, and since he has an Italian flavor, he sings a song that feels like it should be playing in an Italian restaurant, with an ‘That’s Amore’ kind of flavor. The genre of the music followed the development of the character.”

Despite the seriousness of the musical’s theme, Shorr hopes that audiences are entertained by the goofy songs and absurd antics he will be bringing to the stage.

“These are difficult, really serious issues, and when you deal with them in a serious way, it’s too much serious, too much of one thing. So often I prefer to tackle serious issues in a lighthearted way, and so I really hope audiences walk away having a fun night out, which can be easy to forget. But it’s a funny musical, characters doing wacky stuff, lots of jokes, dancing, and so on.The entertainment aspect is pretty important to me.

“I hope that people walk away with the message about the danger of complacency. The first line of the first song in the piece is, ‘We win only when you play along.’ These tactics typically require a level of the population allowing for it to happen.

“It’s not everything and I don’t want this to be misconstrued as victim blaming, but there is this, and it is easier to sort of say nothing and let it happen and figure that you’ll quietly weather the storm than making a fuss, putting yourself in the crosshairs, and accepting a level of danger.”

“Dictators 4 Dummies” is recommended for high school age audiences and older. The show contains some profanity, coarse humor, comic violence, and references to the atrocities of war.

The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and will include a brief post-performance talkback with the playwright and cast.

Tickets: Touchstone Theatre box office, 321 E. 4th St., Bethlehem; touchstone.org; 610-867-1689.