By Brian Scott Lipton
From using B-grade sci-fi movies to classic fairy tales, the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman spanned a few genres in their too-short-lived pairing. But no source material was a more unusual choice for musicalization by this talented twosome than Kurt Vonnegut’s 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
Now, 37 years after its Off-Broadway debut, City Center Encores Off-Center series has not only revived the team’s first effort, but has given it a sparkling, intelligent, and inventive production, directed by Tony Award winner Michael Mayer, smartly bedecked by fellow Tony winners Donyale Werle and Clint Ramos, and, above all, featuring a top-notch cast of 16 actors, including the legendary James Earl Jones in a worth-the-wait cameo appearance.
The show’s somewhat thin plot concerns ambitious young lawyer named Norman Muhari (Skylar Astin, practically emitting sleaze from his pores) who decides to make his name (and fortune) by proving that kindhearted Eliot Rosewater (the endearing yet strong Santino Fontana), who runs the $86 million+ Rosewater Foundation, is insane, thereby handing control of the money to Eliot’s “plain clean average American” cousins from Rhode Island, Fred and Caroline Rosewater.
However, the plot isn’t really the thing. What Vonnegut (and Ashman) focus on are Eliot’s journey, spiritually and physically, as he travels the country; obsesses over volunteer firehouses (the reason why eventually becomes clear); gives comfort, emotional and otherwise, to everyone he encounters; and preaches the gospel of Kilgore Trout, a virtually unknown author who makes his living redeeming stamps. It is a great testament to Fontana, whose likeability and passion is evident in every role he plays, that we root every second for Eliot to come out on top – or at least find some form of happiness.
Is the show too quirky to ever be commercial? Probably. But it’s also often deliciously funny and delightfully tuneful. From the rousing opener “The Rosewater Foundation” to the ballad “Dear Ophelia,” and the clever comic number “The Rhode Island Tango” (superbly rendered by Kevin Del Aguila and the hilarious Kate Wetherhead as the poorer Rosewater cousins), the songs are perfectly suited to the characters, as well as a harbinger of greater things to come.
Most importantly, in many ways, the show feels remarkably topical this week of the Democratic National Convention, especially as we meet the downtrodden, forgotten citizens of Rosewater, Indiana (brought to vivid life by such stellar performers as Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kevin Ligon and Liz McCartney), Eliot’s snobbish senator father (Clark Johnson), and even Eliot’s socialite wife Sylvia (a surprisingly sympathetic Brynn O’Malley) who is literally horrified when the citizens of Rosewater prefer Cheese Nips to pate, and Coca-Cola to Moet & Chandon. Food for thought, indeed.
Finally, a special “God bless” to Jeanine Tesori, who has guided Encores’ “Off-Center” series so brilliantly from the start and ends her term on this unexpectedly worthwhile outing.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater continues at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street) through July 30. Call 212-581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org for tickets.
Photos: Joan Marcus