Mr. Menken and Mr. Ashman went on to write the Off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors and the Disney movie musicals The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Their first collaboration was the score for this show that opened Off-Broadway in 1979 and ran for only 49 performances. Dennis Green contributed additional lyrics.
The music especially during the overture is delightfully jaunty and the lyrics are marvelously witty but unfortunately their accomplished efforts are components of problematic source material.
Kurt Vonnegut’s novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater was published in 1965. It’s one of Mr. Vonnegut’s typically convoluted, episodic counterculture fantastical satires with science fiction and W.W. II references. Mr. Ashman skillfully extracted enough narrative elements from this dense novel for his fine libretto.
Scion of a powerful Indiana family and the son of a U.S. senator, the youthful Elliot Rosewater is a jovial alcoholic who is the head of the Rosewater Foundation with an endowment of $89 million to awards arts grants. After a mental breakdown he leaves New York City and his socialite wife and goes on a cross-country journey visiting volunteer fire departments and interacting with quirky characters.
Meanwhile Nathan Mushari, a nefarious employee of the law firm handling the foundation, plots to have Elliot declared legally insane and to anoint the Rhode Island Rosewaters as head of the foundation for his own enrichment. It’s all labored, not very compelling and not as funny as intended. There’s an abrupt Frank Capra-style sentimental resolution.
Rosewater is an archly topical combination of the names of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barry Goldwater. This is symptomatic of the brittle sense of humor of the material.
Visually and thematically the production echoes the style of the far superior 1960’s musicals Bye Bye Birdie and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Director Michael Mayer has staged the show with flair and Mad Men-looking qualities. Lorin Latarro’s choreography contains several terrific production numbers including one with the company dancing with a fire hose.
The charming and charismatic Broadway leading man Santino Fontana performs the role of Elliot Rosewater with as much commitment as if he were playing J. Pierrepont Finch. Mr. Fontana’s performance is the magnetic anchor of the show.
Kilgore Trout is a loony science fiction author of 117 novels and over 2000 short stories and is a recurring character in Vonnegut’s novels. Here he appears briefly near the end of the show wearing a hunting cap and rising from a wheelchair. That he is played by the legendary 85-year-old James Earl Jones with his thundering voice, joyous presence and sly comic timing is wonderfully jolting. Mr. Jones also is the narrator.
The winsome Brynn O’Malley as Sylvia winningly makes the most of Eliot’s stock upper-class spouse with her vibrant performance. Ms. O’Malley’s rendition of the song “Cheese Nips” is priceless.
Skylar Astin is gleefully villainous as the wily betrayer Norman Mushari. Clark Johnson as Senator Rosewater is suitably blustery. Jeff Blumenkrantz is dryly comedic as a conniving foundation apparatchik.
The rest of the vibrant ensemble many of whom make hilarious impressions in multiple roles includes Derrick Baskin, Nick Choksi, Eddie Cooper, Kevin Del Aguila, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kevin Ligon, Marla Louissaint, Liz McCartney, Bonnie Milligan, and Kate Wetherhead.
Donyale Werle’s artfully minimal scenic design has vintage travelogue signs hanging above the stage that are appropriately lit to note the various locales where the action takes place. Costume designer Clint Ramos outfits the company in colorful 1960’s clothing and provides comical Stars and Stripes garb and blonde wigs for a wacky production number.
The lighting design of Mark Barton and Leon Rothenberg’s sound design both adeptly capture the piece’s intrinsic silliness with their proficient efforts.
Howard Ashman died of AIDS at the age of 40 in 1991, and Alan Menken went on to compose the scores for numerous shows and movies such as Newsies, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules.
This well mounted Encores! Off-Center revival is a welcome opportunity to experience their tremendous early talents in this long unseen work despite its flaws.
Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (July 27-30, 2016)
New York City Center Encores! Off-Center
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: two hours with no intermission