By LOU HARRY
After operating from a converted church for decades, Indiana’s most prominent professional producer of contemporary work, the Phoenix Theatre, opened its new two-stage space with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
While the choice doesn’t exactly fit the Phoenix’s rep for presenting new work (the musical first saw the footlights in 1979), it does embrace the local—given the Indiana roots of Kurt Vonnegut on whose novel it’s based. It also offers a chance for the theater to fill the stage with a mix of newcomers and Phoenix vets—including performers who were in the company’s first production, Warp, in 1983.
Need a brush-up on Vonnegut’s tale? Eliot Rosewater, of the philanthropic Rosewater Foundation, relocates to small-town Indiana where he passes out money to anyone who needs it, causing concern from his socialite wife and his Senator father while giving a scheming lawyer a hook on which to have him declared insane.
While Rosewater seems to fall into the trope that a person who is kind and generous must be assumed by society to be crazy, there’s more to be concerned about regarding Eliot than excessive generosity. Anyone who would disrupt an opera at the Met by screaming that Aida and Radames should stop singing in their tomb to preserve oxygen certainly has issues in need of treatment. For those of us who haven’t read the novel since college, that uncertainly about what Eliot is capable of doing, adds to the show’s forward motion.
In the part, Phoenix first-timer Patrick Goss is the picture of the earnest but distracted heir. Certainly musical theater hadn’t seen—and hasn’t seen since—the likes of him before. And there’s fun and fine work by many around him (just about all in multiple parts). But at this stage in their careers, Ashman and Menken, while showing promise, hadn’t yet found a unifying tone as they would with Little Shop of Horrors, their breakthrough a few years later. From there, the sure-handed duo salvaged Disney animation with their scores for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before Ashman’s untimely death.
Loose ends and half-formed ideas abound in Rosewater. The use of a god-like narrator is ineffective and inconsistent. A number celebrating a certain middle-American snack food starts funny but doesn’t ratchet up as it should. And the villainous sub plot just peters out.
It isn’t fair to ask for the Phoenix production to solve all of the problems with the material, of course. And I’ll take a fascinating experiment with loose ends over a regional theater’s slavish recreation of an oft-produced hit nearly any day. While I would have preferred a small orchestra rather than tracks—even if it were only the two keyboards of the off-Broadway original—there are distinct pleasures here.
They include a gorgeously sung, beautifully staged duet between Eliot and his wife Sylvia (Emily Ristine) that show what happens when directorial vision and onstage talent combine synergize with the material. The volunteer fire department denizens that Eliot bonds with get a fun novelty number (think a more inflammatory “You Gotta Have Heart” from Damn Yankees). The first act closer, “Since You Came To This Town” includes a lump-in-the-throat verse sung by Devan Mathias that’s a powerful short-short play in and of itself. And the conclusion is genuinely moving and funny.
Vonnegut’s work, with rare exception, suffered through many failed adaptions on film. His is a tone tailored for the page. That, on stage, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater still feels Vonnegut-ian is a major achievement in and of itself.
Its messy pleasures—and its plea for kindness and generosity—get the reborn Phoenix off to a promising start. Next up: The world premiere of Tom Horan’s The Pill.
“God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” runs through June 3 at The Phoenix Theatre,705 N. Illinois St. For showtimes and tickets, visit www.phoenixtheatre.org or call 317-635-7529.
Lou Harry is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the chairman of the New Plays Committee that recommends nominees to receive the Steinberg-ATCA New Play Award.