Sunday, July 31, 2016

God Bless City Center Encores!

Encores! Off-Center at City Center just finished its run of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same name. I saw the show yesterday, and was duly impressed.

I very much like Encores! (Although I'm not a fan of the exclamation mark at the end; I have no idea how to punctuate it, for instance, in a list, such as I might be listing Encores!, Oliver!, Oklahoma!, and other such annoying titles that end in exclamation marks.) The premise of the series is to perform obscure musicals, and try to bring them back into the public eye. Sometimes this works well, most notably with their 1996 production of Chicago. Then an obscure faded show, Encores! revived it, and what was originally a limited-run concert launched a full-scale Broadway revival which is still running twenty years later.

Some of the shows Encores! performs were originally poorly received (or later dipped into obscurity) because they were somehow unconventional, either in form or content, such as Merrily We Roll Along, and Chicago. Some because they were, admittedly, flawed shows that Encores! decided to give a second chance, such as Anyone Can Whistle or Allegro. And still some are perfectly good, respectable, normal shows that just happened to fall between the cracks.

The recent addition of the Encores! Off-Center summer season ups the ante. Encores! Off-Center is devoted to performing shows which were originally produced Off-Broadway. Off-Broadway shows naturally tend toward the more obscure, and the nature of Off-Broadway allows them to be more unconventional. Such is the case of A New Brain, which Encores! Off-Center produced last year. And while I wish A New Brain were more popular, I do completely understand why it isn't.

God Bless You Mr. Rosewater is not one of those shows, however. And if it had premiered ten years later, after Menken and Ashman had established themselves with Little Shop Of Horrors and The Little Mermaid, it may have come straight to Broadway. It's certainly a worthy enough show, and not terribly unconventional. The fact that it's based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel might put a few people on edge, but, surprisingly, the story is straightforward one, told in linear fashion.

The plot concerns Elliot Rosewater, the rather eccentric president of the philanthropic Rosewater Foundation. He is in possession of a rather large fortune, which catches the eye of a conniving lawyer, Norman Mushari. When Elliot's fixation with oxygen gets him into trouble (at a performance of Aida -- he clearly did not get the memo that no one dies in Aida), he flees town and finds himself in Rosewater, Indiana, his impoverished hometown, where he sets up a branch of the Rosewater Foundation. Mushari, meanwhile, decides to locate the next living heirs to the Rosewater Fortune, and to pass the fortune to them by proving Elliot legally insane -- and, of course, to win a chunk for himself by inserting himself as the middleman. Mushari's plan is foiled in a Gilbertian plot twist for which I recommend you read the book to find out.

See? Unlike a lot of the musicals I talk about, this one actually makes sense!

Of course, it wouldn't be Vonnegut without biting satire of society, and that satire comes in the form that the main accusation made against Elliot's sanity is that he is charitable toward everyone. His foundation gives money to anyone who asks for it, even those who might not deserve it. Elliot's father is baffled as to why Elliot would ever choose to live with volunteer firemen, and set up a base of operations in a town of "poor, discarded Americans" who are "useless and unattractive." When Elliot's wife Sylvia joins him in Rosewater County, she very shortly suffers a nervous breakdown, which is diagnosed as Samaritrophia. The "hysterical indifference to the troubles of those less fortunate than oneself." Kurt Vonnegut goes into much greater detail about the syndrome.

In a way, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater deals with similar themes as Ashman and Menken's  next musical, Little Shop Of Horrors. Both deal with money and greed in a rather backwards way. In the case of Little Shop Of Horrors, it results in the end of the world, which is a rather Vonnegut-esque thing. But God Bless You Mr. Rosewater is much more idealistic than Little Shop Of Horrors, and, if some of the language were cleaned up, it might make a decent Disney production.

Of course, given that Menken and Ashman headed off the Disney Renaissance with The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, and Aladdin, it makes sense that God Bless You Mr. Rosewater may at times evoke feelings of Disney. The most interesting example being that I think it's implied that the "grey stuff" from Beauty And The Beast is pâté. (Which those of us who have watched Funny Girl know more simply as chopped liver.)

In more seriousness, the most interesting proto-Disney element I found in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater was the prominence of large choruses. In general, on stage, when you have a chorus sing, it is because the characters whom the chorus represent, be they villagers or sailors or whatever, are presently on stage and have reason to sing. And also in general, when this is not the case, it is because the chorus is a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. God Bless You Mr. Rosewater does not make use of a Greek chorus. More recently it's also become somewhat common for the chorus to act as backup singers, without being supposed to be literally on stage and part of the action. This occurs briefly in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, but that's not the sort of chorus that caught my eye.

In a movie, it's easy to bring in a chorus at the drop of a hat. Usually you don't, though, because the rules of suspension of disbelief dictate that a unanimous spontaneous chorus is more believable on stage than on screen. But when said musical is animated and by Disney, suspension of disbelief goes out the window. The entrance of the chorus in such songs as "Plain Clean Average Americans" and "Thank God For The Volunteer Fire Brigade" evokes feelings of "Prince Ali" and "Be Our Guest." They use a big show-stopping chorus in a way that evokes pre-Hammerstein Broadway, but at the same time following Hammerstein's rules. There are not many post-Hammerstein musicals that incorporate a spontaneous toe-tapping choral showstopper as coherently and organically as Menken and Ashman could. It's a staple of the Disney musical, and the seeds are present in God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.

Another thing that caught my eye (or ear?) is Ashman's love of internal rhymes. The first sung line of the show is "Welcome to a flowing fount of truth and good and cash," which has no rhymes. The second line is "If you're looking for the loot to toot a flute or cure a rash." In this line, "rash" rhymes with "cash" in the previous line, but inside, "loot," "toot," and "flute" are rhymed within five syllables. The next line is... You know what? I'll do this the easy way.

Welcome to a flowing font of truth and good and cash
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
If you want to write a piece on St. Denise or Delacroix
If you must research the church of Christ or works of Myrna Loy
Don't be bashful we've a stashfull don't be timid, don't be coy
...
In a world where next to nothing comes for free
Bet you never thought you'd ever live to see
So divine a shrine to fine philanthropy
...

And so on. Notice how almost all of the lines contain internal rhymes, and said internal rhymes always come in different parts of the lines. And in some cases, (It's a joy to buoy the Iroquois and liberate the Cree), the internal rhymes aren't even evenly spaced! Of course, one could argue that this is a necessity, as if the internal rhymes were consistent in every line, then they're simply part of the rhyme scheme and no longer "internal."

My favorite of these internally rhymed lines is "What a pal to those who work in prose or poetry or paint." Note that "prose" is both the last word of the internal rhyme, and the first word of an alliterative list, which ends with the word that rhymes with the previous line. The line jumps from one ear-catching lyrical device directly into another.

That is clever lyric-writing, but the most telling part is that the reprise of this song, which is more melancholy in tone, hardly rhymes at all. The internal rhymes in the opening number indicate a certain level of wit and humor, which sets up the whole show nicely, but once inside the play proper, Mushari is the only character to regularly employ internal rhymes. This keeps in perfectly with his character, who is Cornell-educated and flaunts it. For the most part, while the show is clever a witty, the characters within it are not. And so the scene-setting opening number is the most clever and internally-rhymed song in the piece. And, indeed, one of the most emotional songs in the show, "Elliot... Sylvia" is entirely unrhymed, and seems almost free-form until the second verse starts, at which point the audience is placed back on solid ground.

***

Encores! bills its shows as concerts, or semi-staged concerts, and warns that the cast may be holding scripts. I'm not sure if this is a relic from the early days of Encores! or just insurance so as not to disappoint an audience with high expectations, but it seems that Encores! productions have strayed from their origins as concerts and become more and more elaborately staged. Of course, this whole production was prepared in less than two weeks, so the cast still had scripts (with the apparent exception of Skylar Astin, who may have decided that his character would be the type to show off by not carrying a script), but said scripts were disguised as Kilgore Trout novels (as can be seen in the B-roll footage) -- which did seem a little odd in the hands of characters other than Elliot, who is given to be Kilgore Trout's only reader.

So Encores! not only provides a listen to the scores of unknown shows, but practically brings them back to Broadway for a week. Unfortunately, it's not hard to see why a theater program devoted to producing unpopular works might have trouble filling seats. (Naturally, I don't know how big a problem this actually is for them, but just bear with me for the sake of a blog post.)

The solution, of course, is to hire actors who will bring in crowds. (And also to periodically do a show like Gypsy or Little Shop Of Horrors, which is far from obscure, but should help bring in a profit.)

This is the part where I review the Encores! performance.

The three headliners were Santino Fontana as Elliot Rosewater, Skylar Astin as Norman Mushari, and James Earl Jones as Kilgore Trout. Notice the three different target audiences. Santino Fontana is a name recognizable to the Broadway crowd. Skylar Astin brings in the fans of Pitch Perfect and Glee, and James Earl Jones attracts anybody who's ever heard of James Earl Jones. (I know at least one audience member who came to see the show because of him.)

Santino Fontana brought his usual tenor ingenue panache to the role of Elliot Rosewater. He's played a Disney prince in Frozen, a non-Disney prince in Cinderella, a non-prince who may as well be Disney in The Fantasticks, and now Elliot Rosewater joins them on his resume. It was a perfect role for him, and, naturally, he played it well.

Skylar Astin's portrayal of Norman Mushari caught me a little off-guard. In the book, I had read Mushari as more oily and snakelike. While Astin's Mushari was definitely oily, he was also positively and relentlessly gleeful, and even a little bit awkward. In Vonnegut's book, it's easy to read Mushari's only motivation as being money, but Astin's Mushari seemed to be motivated not only by money but also by the sheer joy of coming up with a clever scheme, and executing it. His dancing and prancing about the stage in his villain song in Act I totally sold the performance, and he was the comic highlight of the show.

There was a moment involving Skylar Astin that exemplifies the sort of entertainment you can only get from live theater. In Act II, Elliot Rosewater has a particularly dramatic song, and a dark one at that. It got a lot of applause. Immediately after this song, Mushari enters as his plot is coming into motion. This scene is not particularly comical, but during the applause after Fontana's song, Fontana left and Astin entered. Astin entered as the applause was still going on, and acknowledged the audience as though the applause was for him. This immediately defused the tension from the previous scene with a big laugh, and set us up immediately for the next scene, a more lighthearted one.

There was a lot of laughter during the show, which is a good thing, but it did cover up some of the lines. In fact, half of the narration (provided as magnificently as you might expect coming from James Earl Jones playing a character listed in the script as "Voice Not Unlike God") was covered up by laughter from the other half of the narration. Suffice it to say, when James Earl Jones finally made his on-stage entrance as Kilgore Trout, he got a large ovation.

The non-headliner who should have been a headliner was Brynn O'Malley, in the role of Sylvia Rosewater. The only character other than Elliot and Mushari to get a solo all to herself. She went through all of Sylvia's turns of character wonderfully -- and Sylvia has more turns of character than anyone else in the show. She starts out as Elliot's anchor to sanity, before suffering a nervous collapse, and then finally adopts a more somber tone in Act II. Brynn O'Malley likely would have been listed along with Santino Fontana and Skylar Astin in the advertising, except that her name is not as recognizable, and James Earl Jones already filled the third advertising name.

It's worth noting, however, that while Sylvia probably has the most colors to play of any individual character, there is a lot of doubling in the show, and almost every actor except the principals plays multiple parts. In most of these cases, they play one prominent role, and a number of nameless ensemble parts, so, just as the actor playing the dentist in Little Shop Of Horrors may be listed in the playbill as "Orin and Everybody Else," so may the actor playing Fred Rosewater be listed as "Fred Rosewater and others." And when I say I enjoyed Kevin Del Aguila's performance, it may be taken to mean that I enjoyed Kevin Del Aguila's performance as Fred Rosewater. Although his portrayal of Writer #1 was perfectly respectable, Fred Rosewater is the role I'm going to be able to pick out when reviewing the show as I am now. And I did enjoy Kevin Del Aguila's performance as Fred Rosewater.

Of the other ensemble members, Rebecca Naomi Jones was probably the most prominent. She played a memorable Mary Moody as her primary role, but I think audiences will remember her scenery-chewing Blanche and Telethon Hostess, and, although her final role didn't have any spoken lines, she still got a major laugh as the Nun.

I did notice that the character of Mary Moody was slightly reduced from the book. A brief moment for Mary Moody in the book was given to Diana Moon-Glampers in the musical, and played quite effectively by Liz McCartney. Diana Moon-Glampers was a particularly prominent role (the song "Since You Came To This Town" was originally written as a solo for her), and that is perhaps why she doubles with only two other parts, the File Clerk and the Operator.

But of the doublings, one stuck out at me. The actress who played Dawn Leonard (in this instance, Kate Wetherhead) doubled as Caroline Rosewater. Both roles are of similar prominence, and a given audience member is probably likely to remember each of them equally. The only other actor who plays two roles of equal prominence is James Earl Jones as the Voice Not Unlike God and Kilgore Trout. (It is worth noting that in the cast bios, James Earl Jones was the only one who listed multiple roles; Kate Wetherhead only listed Dawn Leonard, Kevin Ligon only listed Delbert Peach, and so on.) I'm not sure what the rationale is for Dawn Leonard and Caroline Rosewater being played by the same person (and this is the recommended doubling given by the script, not just a quirk of this production), but Kate Wetherhead played both roles distinctly and well.

While Dawn Leonard is not a prominent character, so to speak, she does have two prominent musical entrances, both of which succeeded in giving me chills. The first in the song "Look Who's Here," where she enters on harmony with Mary Moody, and the second entrance being the third verse of "Since You Came To This Town." The latter part Wetherhead sang quietly and timidly, and was extremely effective. She then proceeded to throw off all timidity in Act II for her comic and sarcastic portrayal of Caroline Rosewater. Between her and Kevin Del Aguila, if I have one complaint about the show, it's that we don't see more of the Rhode Island Rosewaters. They appear in only one scene at the beginning of Act II, and after that, their actions are represented by the machinations of Mushari. Their duet is catchy, though.

***

Periodically, Encores! does a pretty good job of bringing a show back into the public consciousness. Chicago is the most prominent example. Some of their productions, most recently, Violet, have sprung Broadway revivals. Several of their productions have made cast albums which helped to get the music into more hands. I should certainly hope God Bless You Mr. Rosewater will get a cast album, if for no other reason than that it currently does not have one; the music may be heard in demo recordings and that's about it. What's more, this production features orchestrations by Danny Troob, more than doubling the size of the orchestra from what, according to MTI, was originally five players. And I have to say, the big band sound definitely suits the score.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter to Howard Ashman after the original Off-Broadway run of God Bless You Mr. Rosewater had closed. He said that what Ashman did "was to shoehorn 'Rosewater' into world culture, whether the critics wanted it there or not," and his guess that "it is going to become a staple in American theater, at least -- living on, who knows, for a hundred years or more."

Clearly, Vonnegut was wrong. I feel like some of the confusion may be due to the fact that God Bless You Mr. Rosewater premiered in 1979, but it feels much more like a 60s musical than a 70s musical. The book was published in 1965, the year that brought us Flora The Red Menace, Do I Hear A Waltz, and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. Big bands, lavish productions, conventional stories. But 1979, when the musical premiered, was the year of Sweeney Todd and Evita. A very different sort of musical. But I think time may have redeemed God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. If a show is ten years out of date, it's old and tired. But if it's fifty years out of date, it's nostalgic. God Bless You Mr. Rosewater is not fresh and new, but now that it isn't new, it doesn't have to be. Kurt Vonnegut may have made his mistake based on how the musical felt like a show from the 50s and 60s, which is when so many of the "great American musicals" were written. But with a few decades difference, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater may pull a Chicago and make its way back into the American musical repertoire. I'd say it deserves it, if on no other count than I can think of no other musical that deals with this particular subject matter in such an uplifting way.

***

This hardly serves as a useful review of God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, as the show is already over. Consider it instead an advertisement for the potential upcoming Broadway revival (too hopeful?), as well as a warning to watch out for Encores! in the future, and an encouragement to give obscure and unpopular shows a chance. You never know when something great has slipped between the cracks.

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