By Darlene Donloe
HOLLYWOOD — American politics has had its ups and downs and so many twists and turns that collectively both Democrats and Republicans have to laugh to keep from crying.
No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, laughing is exactly what the cast, director and producers of “44 – The Unofficial, Unsanctioned Obama Musical (As Told Through the Hazy Recollection of Joe Biden)” wants the audience to do.
The musical satire features music, lyrics and a book by Eli Bauman (NBC’s “Maya & Marty”) with additional songs co-written by Bauman and his father, Jon “Bowzer” Bauman of Sha Na Na fame.
The show, with a cast of 11, stars T.J. Wilkins who was named in the Top 12 overall as a member of Team Usher on Season 6 of NBC’s “The Voice,” and R&B artist Shanice as Barack and Michelle Obama.
“44” also includes a Washington D.C cast of characters including Kevin Bailey as John Boehner, Larry Cedar as Mitch McConnell, Chad Doreck as Joe Biden, Kelley as Hillary Clinton, Summer Nicole Greer as Voice of the People, Jane Papageorge as Sarah Palin, Dino Shorté as Herman Cain, Jeff Sumner as Lindsay Graham and Michael Uribes as Ted Cruz. Understudies for “44” include Marqell Edward Clayton as Barack Obama and Herman Cain, Scott Kruse as Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham.
The show’s live rock band is Los Angeles-based House of Vibe led by music director, music co-producer and keyboardist Anthony “Brew” Brewster. The band includes Phillip “Fish” Fisher (drums); Corey Cofield (bass); Kris Hawkins and Conrad Bauer (guitar) and Greg Raymond (keyboard).
James Alsop handles the show’s hip-hop-infused choreography.
I recently spoke to Shanice and Wilkins about “44,” which is currently enjoying its third run at the Bourbon Room in Hollywood through Nov. 18.
Shanice, who is married to actor Flex Alexander, is best known for her worldwide hit, “I Love Your Smile,” which garnered a Grammy nomination, and the hit reality show “Flex and Shanice,” which ran for three seasons on the Oprah Winfrey Network. She recently launched a vegan lipstick line available on SmileByShanice.com.
T.J. Wilkins, 33, is a Los Angeles native who studied music at Cal State Northridge and has shared the stage with Stevie Wonder, The Jacksons, John Legend and Beyoncé. In 2019, he garnered a Grammy nomination for the song “Spirit” from Walt Disney Pictures’ “The Lion King.”
DD: How did you get involved in this show?
Shanice: Someone reached out to Kerry Gordy. He called and asked if I wanted to play Michelle Obama in a show about Obama. I was honored. Then, I thought about doing something about politics. Then I thought, I actually know families who still aren’t talking to each other because of politics. I thought about it some more — and then I heard the music. I was like, “Oh, yeah,” I can do this.
Wilkins: I first learned about it when it was a concept. Eli Bauman had written a bunch of songs for a musical he was putting together. Someone I competed with on “The Voice” was helping him find singers. She called and asked if I would sing some songs for him in the studio. He said he was building a musical on Obama. I told him I would love to be involved. A year or two later, he and the other producers came to me and said they wanted me to be the guy. They cast me as Obama. It’s been a blessing and joy. I never intended to be a stage actor. This was very new to me. On the first run, I felt like a fish out of water.
DD: For people who haven’t seen it, describe the show.
Shanice: This show uplifts your spirits. It makes you want to dance, sing and cry. I’m so honored to play Michelle Obama. She’s class. She’s intelligent. I like that the show isn’t one-sided. Both sides, meaning Democrats and Republicans, aren’t spared.
Wilkins: It’s an experience. It’s unlike any show I have ever seen, which is why, for me, being a part of it is special. It’s part concert, story — and the audience is a cast member. The show tells a retrospective of what the country was like before Obama became president. It’s told through Biden. It makes the show a lot of fun. It takes you through the first term — and what he had to endure and face. The music is what makes the show so much fun. You find yourself singing along.
DD: You are portraying someone who is still alive and someone who is well known and is a former president. Were you apprehensive?
Wilkins: I did not have apprehension. I think I was understanding the responsibility of portraying someone well known. I wanted to make sure I gave the spirit and essence of what Obama is about. I wanted to show unity, having the flavor and being cool. I mean, he rocked a tan suit. There were no scandals. He did right by his wife and children. I read about him and his beliefs. He’s an idealist. It’s a real testament to his life. I’ve never met him but people who have met him say I’ve got him down.
DD: You’re an actress and a Grammy-nominated singer. This show must be right up your alley.
Shanice: I love acting and I love singing. I was doing melodies when I was 7 months old. My mother has it on tape. I’ve been acting since I was 8 years old when I began studying with Chip Fields at a performing arts school. I was actually on stage with Kim Fields and Malcolm Jamal Warner before he got “The Cosby Show.”
DD: Describe what it’s like to portray President Obama.
Wilkins: The one thing I found out was that when he was in Chicago — running for the Senate — everything he talked about regarding his policies he really believed it. He believed in the Constitution and what America could be. That really touched me in a deep way. When he ran for president, that was the first year I was eligible to vote. I was extremely excited. It was my first time voting. Now I’m portraying him.
DD: How did you prepare to play Michelle Obama?
Shanice: It was intimidating. I kept thinking, “Can I pull this off?” I studied her interviews. I didn’t want to imitate her. I just wanted to play her as a strong, Black woman. Now, it’s enjoyable. It takes me away from my shyness. When I play her, I go to another world.
DD: Why should people see this show?
Shanice: They should see the show because of where we are in the world. Forget about TikTok, forget about social media, forget about everything that’s going on in the world. It’s too much. Come see this show. It’s so entertaining. You’ll feel good.
Wilkins: At a time when there is so much strife in the world, this is an escape. You can wind down and have some fun. Our show taps into the spirit of how Obama ran his career, which is about hope and change. You have to be there to understand how wonderful it is.
“44 — The Unofficial, Unsanctioned Obama Musical” is at the Bourbon Room, 6356 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Showtimes are 7 p.m., Nov. 3-4, 8-10 and 15-18, Tickets range from $44 to $88 with a $25 minimum spending per person for food and/or drink. Seating is assigned, and the doors open at 6 p.m. for seating and dinner. For information, visit www.44ObamaMusical.com or www.BourbonRoomHollywood.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.