When Will Ferrell began previews for his Broadway spectacular on the night of the inauguration of President Barack Obama, I could not think of any reason why anybody in their right, right-wing, or left-wing minds would want to spend 90 minutes reviewing the legacy of George W. Bush. The launch date for "You're Welcome America, A Final Night with George W. Bush" was not chosen accidentally. But it also didn't feel right. In the middle of January, the nation was swept up in a wave of optimism and, yes, hope. We wanted to forget Bush before he even left the White House. But now. More than seven weeks later, as Ferrell's Broadway run comes to a close with a final farewell bow on Sunday, and the nation gripped in the throes of a global economic crisis, why not take another look at the past eight years that led us here?
HBO will air Saturday night's performance live at 9 p.m. EDT, although the crews also filmed last night's show as well — a process that helps the Home Box Office cover three fronts: 1) a dry run for the crew to make sure they know all of the cues, blocking and best angles to shoot on Saturday; 2) complete show footage in case a technical snafu arises on Saturday; and 3) extra footage that can be blended in with Saturday's show on a future DVD release.
So what should you expect to see? You might not get to hear a joke that occurs over the public address system before the official start of the show, in which "Dick Cheney" gives the audience instructions and reminds us all about Halliburton.
Once Ferrell as Bush makes his grand entrance in full military theatrical style, he gets right into character — Ferrell's Bush is not much changed from his SNL rendition. Though W. left office in January with a heavy heart and weary demeanor, Ferrell's take on our past president embodies the overconfident swagger that Bush held during the 2002-2007 years. In the opening minutes, Bush winks at the audience, remarking on his newfound surroundings: "While you're at it, why don't you just drop me off in the faggy Theater District? And they did! So…the joke's on me."
Before the first 10 minutes had elapsed, Ferrell sprung his first major surprise on the audience with a photograph that's supposed to be of the presidential penis. Early press reviews noted that a few audience members walked out of the show when confronted with the abrupt nudity, but I heard mostly just gasps and guffaws at this moment of "shock and awe" in last night's show, which Ferrell added with a timely flourish: "Turns out Friday the 13th was your lucky day!" And then he flashed the photo again. "That's my stimulus package!" he cracked. Will HBO show the presidential penis during the live broadcast? I think they might. (Read my extended thoughts on this particular aspect of the show on The Huffington Post)
Ferrell's comedy career began in improvisation with the Groundlings in Los Angeles, and he has used ad-libbing to great effect in his best movies. In his farewell to Bush, Ferrell remains keenly aware of what's going on in the audience. One key sequence may involve an audience plant (UCB vet Michael Delaney), but everything else is purely in the moment, as Ferrell adapts to the audience and engages with them. At one point while tracing the life arc of George W. Bush, he stops during a sordid sexual tale or an imagined Bush romp in his Yale years to ask if the audience has gotten the message. When a man in the mezzanine shouted no, Ferrell kept going with metaphoric allusions. And as the early press reviews noted, the audience has loved a segment that happens near the finale in which the lights come up and Ferrell/Bush offers to give nicknames to audience members based solely upon their names, occupations and his whims. Among the examples I managed to jot down from last night: unemployed actor = "shit out of luck," special ed teacher = "I don't have a nickname for that, but I remember some of the classes," hairstylist = "Vidal Sassoon," economist = "unemployed," political pollster = "the bullshit artist," decorative hardware and bath accessories = "scrub a dub dub, three men in a tub," seventh grader = "pubes," lingerie model = "titty tassles," carpenter = "Jesus," presidential historian = "thumb up your ass." There were a few audience members who outright lied to try to be funny, and Ferrell quickly called them on it. Although last night's show included one surprise that I shan't mention because it was so special that I dare not encourage it happen again by mentioning it.
As Ferrell/Bush exits briefly offstage a few times for costume changes, his designated Secret Service agent (played by his brother, Patrick Ferrell) becomes increasingly animated in his attempts at some crowd-pleasing dance moves. But it remains Pia Glenn who gets the whole house's attention with a show-stopping seductive dance number as Bush's loyal aide and confidant til the end, Condi Rice.
It's not all big laughs, surprisingly, as Ferrell takes a minute toward the end of the show to give his sincere sympathy for all of the soldiers who have lost their lives in Iraq and elsewhere, and their families for making the ultimate sacrifices for Bush's foreign policies. He asks for and receives a prolonged moment of silence. I wondered if this was a choice Ferrell and director Adam McKay made on their own to make up for the 90 minutes of mockery about all of the mistakes from the past eight years. Or perhaps they merely wanted to humanize Bush. Either way, I also wondered how they'd get back to a funny place. Saved by a phone call, it turns out.
As Bush, Ferrell closes by asking: Was he really the worst president ever? Time will tell and shape that answer for future generations. One thing's for certain. Ferrell earned several applause breaks during the show not due simply to rampant anti-Bush sentiment, but because his bravura performance and delivery really was something to behold and applaud. Bravo, sir. Bravo. Now we can truly say farewell.