NEW YORK — "the last temptation of William Jefferson" is a spirited new musical with almost as much engaging drama as comedy.
With dialogue and lyrics by Fred Newman, a respected political playwright, and music by 1999 Grammy Award nominee (for best country song) Annie Roboff, the seven-actor musical is at off-Broadway's nonprofit Castillo Theatre through Nov. 7.
It begins as a fictional first couple is approaching a crisis of confidence in their 30-year-old relationship, which thankfully reflects little of the real-life events surrounding the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Melanie Jefferson, the first lady, has grown weary of politics and yearns to return to the ideals of their youth. But William Jefferson, the president, likes things as they are. "I'm president of the United States!" he gloats.
"I liked you when you were shy - it made me feel close to you," Mrs. Jefferson laments. Moved as much by his wife's genuine affection as his own conscience, William agrees to see a marriage counselor. The couple then sings about their problems in a series of duets, including the witty and barbed "They Don't Inhale at Yale" and the soulfully melodic "Melanie."
The Jeffersons begin to glimpse that the real culprit keeping them apart and out-of-tune with their own once-cherished values is politics, in which some people will say and do anything for votes.
In one way, writes Mr. Newman in the show's program, the show has to do with more than just the Clintons: "They are as American as apple pie. They are expert practitioners of the sick American game of demonization (sometimes called politics) and are likewise its hideous victims."
Bill Quinlan brings a manic energy to the title role. Like the late comedian Phil Hartman, he transforms himself from an ordinary "everyman" into an Elmer Gantry-like figure - with charm and magnetism as thick as molasses.
"I'm not a Clinton supporter," Mr. Quinlan said in an interview with the Monitor. "But now that I'm looking at them - or characters based loosely on them - on a more human level, I have a lot more compassion for them. And I'm starting to like Bill Clinton. My wife is amazed!"
Elizabeth Saliers, who sings beautifully, plays Melanie Jefferson with a perfect balance of longing and fun. If Hillary Rodham Clinton is only half as winning as Melanie, this may hint at why the couple has stayed together for so many years.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society