God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater – New York City Center

Encores! Off-CenterKurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Encores! Off-Center’s production of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater at New York City Center. Picture: Joan Marcus

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, an Encores! Off-Center production at New York City Center, continues until 30 July.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is hardly a well-known title in the musical theatre canon, but it turns out to be a terrifically entertaining gem that’s spookily relevant as well. And we can heartily thank New York City Center for reviving it as part of its summertime Encores! Off-Center series, dedicated to shows that had their origins Off-Broadway.

The piece was first seen in 1979 in a 12-performance ‘showcase’ run Off-Off-Broadway at a company known as the WPA Theatre. Later that year it transferred to an Off-Broadway venue, where it ran for 49 performances, and then faded away.

However, the show did have the distinction of being the first collaboration between composer Alan Menken and book-writer and lyricist, the late Howard Ashman. Ashman directed the production as well, which also includes a credit for additional lyrics to Dennis Green.

The Ashman-Menken team went on to create the enduring Little Shop of Horrors and a spate of Disney animated movies, including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. After Ashman’s untimely death in 1991 from complications from AIDS, Menken has worked with other collaborators on a host of other Disney movies plus such stage works as Sister Act and A Bronx Tale, which is scheduled to open on Broadway this fall.

Following up on its well-received airing of Little Shop of Horrors last summer, Encores! Off-Center has bestowed upon Rosewater an exhilarating production, with a cast headed by the supremely talented Santino Fontana and given a big jolt of star power with the presence of James Earl Jones.

The script is based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel and the novelist’s name is sometimes attached to the title, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. It tells of an eccentric millionaire, Eliot Rosewater, who heads his family’s cultural-philanthropic foundation, giving away money to all sorts of endeavours.

“If you’re looking for the loot/To toot a flute or cure a rash/If you’re down on luck and need a buck/We’ll fund you in a flash,” sing the foundation’s workers in the buoyant opening number, whose lyrics have more than a touch of W.S. Gilbert’s piquancy.

Eliot, however, has problems stemming from his service in the Second World War and he leaves his New York office to go searching for the meaning of life. He winds up in Rosewater, Indiana, the family’s hometown, which changing economics have left desolate.

Eliot decides to dispense much of the foundation’s fortunes on the town’s despairing citizens. This does not sit well with Eliot’s father, a United States senator, while at the same time having to deal with the uncouth townsfolk takes its toll on Eliot’s comely and upscale wife, Sylvia.

The situation furthermore stimulates the greed of a conniving lawyer named Norman Mushari, who sees an opportunity to grab a good chunk of the Rosewater money by having Eliot declared insane and the foundation’s fortune transferred to some distant cousins, who, of course, will be Mushari’s clients.

The script uncannily vibrates with up-to-the-minute relevance, even as it veers off into all kinds of seemingly random directions. There are, for example, Eliot’s penchant for volunteer fire brigades, illustrated wonderfully in a razzle dazzle production number, and his admiration for the books of a most unsuccessful science fiction writer. The convoluted tale ends happily but rather abruptly.

However, even as the mood travels from giddy social satire to the most seriously dark, Menken’s deliciously tuneful music buoys things up, supplying additional lustre to Ashman’s wise and witty lyrics, in both fresh-sounding ballads and jaunty novelty numbers.

Michael Mayer’s direction, is an exemplar of ingratiating musical theatre stagecraft, buoyed further by Lorin Latarro’s choreography, and it would be hard to imagine a better cast to manoeuvre the maze of plot.

Fontana makes the quirky Eliot totally believable and totally engaging, and in musical numbers he endows every word of Ashman’s lyrics with astounding clarity, while appreciating the richness of Menken’s melodies.

James Earl Jones portrays the science fiction writer so admired by Eliot, and as such he does not appear on stage until near the final curtain. At the performance seen, it was an entrance greeted with showstopping applause. Throughout the show, Jones also acts an unseen narrator, a ‘Voice Not Unlike God’, who supplies bits of plot data and commentary.

Skylar Astin is a delightfully comic villain as the lawyer Mushari and Brynn O’Malley makes Eliot’s harried wife Sylvia a sympathetic figure. Telling depictions of the citizens of Rosewater come from Liz McCartney, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Eddie Cooper, among others.

The first-rate production values include Clint Ramos’ costumes, which help nicely in defining characters, especially for actors taking on multiple roles, and Donyale Werle’s smart scenic design, featuring large overhanging signs which when spotlighted define the script’s various settings.

With its rambunctious plotting, Rosewater may not be a perfect gem, but nevertheless it’s a gem worth treasuring and polishing up now and then. The programme reproduces a letter the celebrated novelist Vonnegut wrote to Ashman after the closing of the 1979 production. “My guess,” Vonnegut wrote of the show, “is that it is going to become a staple in American theatre, at least – living on for a hundred years or more. It’s such fun to do.”

Well, it’s certainly fun to see, and this revival – with only five performances – may well help give some validity to Vonnegut’s prediction.

Ron Cohen

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