Gridiron goes for the jugular 

'In the Ring' is the best we've seen.

I’ve seen four Gridiron performances, starting in 2000, and this year’s topped them all. The musical send-up of Arkansas and national politicians and personalities by the Pulaski County Bar Association, which debuted Aug. 9 for six performances, was spot on in hammering Gov. Mike Huckabee, Vice President Dick Cheney, Laura Bush and state first lady Janet Huckabee, Mike Beebe and Asa Hutchinson, Wally Hall and Bill Valentine, county clerk Pat O’Brien and his apparent fin-icky office dress policy, UA football coach Houston Nutt and quarterback Mitch Mustain and plenty more.

Titled “In the Ring,” the Gridiron performance had its traditional bookends, but it’s inside where the meat was, and Jana Hendrix’s flawless direction and choreography had the program sailing through its 80-minute running time with rewritten familiar songs, all chock-full of great new lines blistering newsmakers of the past couple of years. The setting was a boxing ring inside Alltel Arena, with “Just Say No. Little Rock” hanging above it.

Obviously, the past couple of years gave the Gridiron crew lots to work with, and they fired their shots at the Lonoke police office scandal, the ivory-billed woodpecker and Mike Huckabee’s apparent penchant for flying on the public dole via the State Police plane or in a private jet paid for by his Virginia-based political action committee fund.

The Lonoke scandal involving Police Chief Jay Campbell and his wife got the best treatment to the song “All That Jazz” (rewritten as “All That Trash”) from “Chicago.” Debbie Averitt starred as the police chief’s bawdy wife, and the entire skit skirted the edge of grinding raunchi-ness. Averitt’s singing range is terrific.

Not to be outdone in the vocal department, Kathryn Pryor took the Kristen Chenowith tune “Popular” from “Wicked” and showed how Laura Bush might advise the state’s first lady, Janet Huckabee (Janis Kovalscik).

Herb Rule was hilarious throughout in his ivory-billed woodpecker costume and his song “Peckers” (to the tune of “People”)was a delight. Steve Giles may not look quite like Gov. Huckabee, but he nailed him in his actions in the R. Kelly song “I Believe I Can Fly.” Larry Crane did a dead-on impersonation of Mike Beebe, and he and Perry Young as Asa! squared off in the ring to the Dean Martin-Nat King Cole tune “Open up the Dog House.” Craig Wilson led a cool congo line of “Mexicans” jumping the border fences in a riff of Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line.” And the Houston Nutt-Mitch Mustain recruiting saga got the Gridiron treatment as a scene from “Brokeback Mountain,” with Tim Boozer capturing Nutt’s mannerisms perfectly.

There wasn’t a dull song in the bunch, and the skits were brought to a big finish with Hillary Clinton (Treeca Cotton) and Condi Rice (Marie-B Miller) battling it out in the main event, the ensemble all around, Dick Cheney firing his shotgun wildly and the woodpecker being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The 60-person cast then put a rousing end to the show by reprising the rumba of “Jump in the Line.” It was great fun. They’ll all be back in two years to do it again.

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