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God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 28, 2016

Santino Fontana
Photo by Joan Marcus

The world will never know for sure what it lost when Howard Ashman died of complications of AIDS in 1991. The lyricist and librettist was responsible for one of the great comedic musicals of the last several decades (Little Shop of Horrors) and the two movies that revised Disney's animated fortunes (The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast). He and his frequent collaborator, composer Alan Menken, have crafted some of the most singable, hummable, and lovable songs of recent entertainment history—but it's folly to assume that their gifts extended only to their popular successes. For proof of this, you need look no further than the Encores! Off-Center production of the team's 1979 Off-Broadway musical God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which is playing at City Center through this weekend.

It may have technically been a flop (after a brief showcase run, it lasted only 49 performances at the Entermedia Theatre), and no cast recording may have resulted in it, but this material is tops: right up there with the very best of what Ashman and Menken have ever done. And though it's astonishingly faithful in plot to the Kurt Vonnegut novel on which it's based, it's also the rare literary adaptation of the modern era that doesn't leave you longing for the original creator's singular way with words. Ashman and Menken create a crazy new universe of their own and wrap you in so tightly and comfortingly that there is nowhere else you would rather be.

That sort of reassurance is central to the story, too, about Eliot Rosewater, the son of a senator, whose kindness and philanthropy are branding him as insane in the hardened post–World War II United States. He's slowly giving away all of the money of his family's charitable foundation to the downtrodden and depressed who haven't known the luck of birth he has, and even, through his fascination with volunteer fire departments, gives up life in the big city for a simpler, more meaningful existence in Rosewater, Indiana. (The name is, of course, not a coincidence.)

As he battles his propriety-minded father and social-climbing wife Sylvia, he faces behind the scenes another threat: Norman Mushari, a lawyer for the Rosewater Foundation, who plans to seize on a loophole that the foundation's president cannot serve for life and leave it to his heirs if he's declared legally insane, and "redirect" some of that $87 million into his own pockets. But, once started, can Eliot's good-faith giving ever truly be stopped?

There's some serious content at work, and if it's not exactly downplayed, it's given a glimmering gloss through both the sprightly book and the dazzling score. The opening number introduces us to both the foundation's mission and the potential zaniness beneath it ("If you'd like to write a piece / On St. Denis or Delacroix / If you must research the Church of Christ / Or works of Myrna Loy / Don't be bashful, we've a stashful / Don't be timid / Don't be coy") in a faux spiritual that believes so completely in itself, it never registers as ironclad pastiche. And "Cheese Nips," Sylvia's snack-food-induced breakdown patter number, is expert at eliciting unspeakable horrors from the everyday ("Oh the wurst was the best and Bavarian / True the Caviar's utilitarian / But it does come from Russia / And surely deserves to be tried / Bet you they'd / Want it fried").

But there's sincerity, too, in the warm Act I finale, "Since You Came to This Town," in which Eliot's impact among the ordinary men and women of Rosewater is assessed from the ground up; and "Eliot/Sylvia" in Act II is an oddly gorgeous awkward phone call set to music, in which what isn't said carries far more weight than what is. The two best numbers are uncategorizable: Though ostensibly (and unmistakably) comedic, "Thank God for the Volunteer Fire Brigade" is a soaring, infectious, and explosive exploration of Eliot's unique perspective; and Eliot's homecoming song, "Look Who's Here," is raw, guttural excitement tinged with heartbreaking hope. These are incredible, almost incomparable, compositions, that fuse Ashman's ultra-witty and affectionate lyrics (Dennis Green wrote some, as well) with Alan Menken's golden-earworm melodies, and Danny Troob's superbly splashy, but heartfelt, orchestrations.

At Encores!, Musical Director Chris Fenwick brings out the best in all of the music, and receives top-notch assistance from Michael Mayer (the sparkling, light-handed direction), Lorin Latarro (the delightful choreography), and designers Donyale Werle (the humorous comic-book-postcard sets), Clint Ramos (costumes), and Mark Barton (the invigorating lights). The cast, too, could scarcely be better, with Santino Fontana a marvelous Eliot, endlessly affable and thoroughly believable as both a reluctant businessman and an ill-equipped humanitarian; Brynn O'Malley a nimble but hilarious Sylvia; and Skylar Astin a playfully threatening yet oddly appealing Mushari. The ensemble's aces as well, with the likes of Jeff Blumenkrantz, Liz McCartney, Derrick Baskin, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kevin del Aguila, and, of all people, James Earl Jones as eccentric author Kilgore Trout, put to airtight use; only Clark Johnson, as the senator, disappoints, and then only because, on opening night anyway, his eyes were all but welded to his script.

Alas, the evening can't quite maintain its stratospheric stature for the full two hours it runs. As could perhaps be expected from Vonnegut, a preachiness creeps in that Ashman and Menken have a difficult time yolking, and much of the second half of Act II feels less organic and more desperate. Even so, the cumulative effect of it all sends you out on a high you won't descend from easily. We may never know what other wonderful shows Ashman may have wrought, but we should be grateful for the superb titles he gave us—and hasten to add God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or at least most of it, to that exalted, enticing list.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Through July 30
New York City Center, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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