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Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Encores! Off-Center closes out the season with Ashman and Menken's little-known predecessor to Little Shop of Horrors

Santino Fontana (center) stars as Eliot Rosewater in Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, directed by Michael Mayer, for Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

The most popular musical-theater songwriting duo since Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote their first show together in 1979, and since then, it has hardly ever been produced. Based on that, one would assume that it must be pretty bad, right? Wrong. Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater was the first collaboration between Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the team behind the hit Disney animated features Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. It is now receiving a rare concert revival from Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center. While Rosewater never achieves the magic and cohesion of the three aforementioned films (now Broadway musicals), as far as first tries go, it's pretty darn good.

Based on the eponymous Kurt Vonnegut novel, the story follows Eliot Rosewater (Santino Fontana), the president of the Rosewater Foundation and heir to an estate worth $87 million. His father (Clark Johnson) is a senator from Indiana, but the New York-based family is rarely ever there, because why would they be? Rosewater County, Indiana, where they still own a mansion, is a depressing post-industrial wasteland, exclusively populated by those not clever or pretty enough to get out before age 20. Frustrated with his life writing big checks to elite causes, like producing Wagner operas in Idaho, Eliot decides to move back to Rosewater County, where he opens a suicide hotline for the residents. He also regularly pays their bills and has them over to the mansion to binge on junk food, an activity that endlessly frustrates his socialite wife, Sylvia (Brynn O'Malley). Meanwhile, unscrupulous lawyer Norman Mushari (Skylar Astin) attempts to have Eliot declared insane so that he can transfer the estate to a distant cousin, pocketing a hefty fee in the process. But is it really that insane to want to help people?

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater directly questions the very premise of the American Dream: that if you work hard, you can achieve wealth and success, no matter your beginnings. In Rosewater, most of the characters are helpless to rise above their humble stations, while the select rich didn't get that way through hard work. It feels like an odd piece to adapt into a musical, that most optimistic and patriotic of forms.

But it turns out that Ashman and Menken's blend of wit and sincerity perfectly conveys Vonnegut's dark satire. "It's one of my favorite tax shelters, sir," Mushari says gleefully when his boss (a businesslike Jeff Blumenkrantz) mentions the Rosewater Foundation. Mushari later delivers the memorably wicked lyric: "My professor at Cornell, / May his dear soul rest in hell."

Director Michael Mayer wisely maintains an earnest commitment in the delivery of these lines, allowing the script and design to do all the winking. Donyale Werle's multicolored scaffolding offers multiple levels and spaces for this cross-country adventure of a show. Costume designer Clint Ramos makes sure that we know who everyone is and where they shop (a lot of them at Kmart, appropriately).

Sylvia Rosewater (Brynn O'Malley) has a mental breakdown over cheese nips in Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
(© Joan Marcus)

Leading the cast, Fontana unfailingly strikes the right balance between comedy and tragedy. The highly energetic Astin is as animated as any Disney villain. O'Malley gives a bravura performance of Sylvia's big breakdown number, "Cheese Nips," complete with a twitching eye that can be seen from the back row. Liz McCartney's touching portrayal of 68-year-old virgin Diana Moon Glampers provides a major concession of Vonnegut's story to the sensibilities of musical theater: She is far more sympathetic onstage than on the page.

While the first act mostly revolves around the obscenity of American capitalism, the second act attempts to complicate the issue: "They make tools. They encourage the tools to think for themselves. Before they know it, the tools are more useful than they are," says Eliot's favorite science-fiction writer, Kilgore Trout (a spry and wily James Earl Jones), telling the story of a "strange planet" called Earth, where automation and a superfluous workforce become more prevalent every year: "Now, there is a long tradition of feeding useless people, so they continue to be fed...but respect is withdrawn." Can someone who lives on handouts, as the residents of Rosewater County increasingly do, ever be respected? Is it enough to sustain, but never improve their lives? Unfortunately, these questions are only hinted at in Jones' monologue. They aren't as clear in the songs or the action of the second act, which feels a lot more aimless than the first.

Still, a distinctive and melodic Menken pastiche (a mixture of old show music, pop ballads, and gospel) is there throughout. Chris Fenwick and his orchestra perform it in grand, almost cinematic style (the string and woodwinds sections sound particularly full). Ashman's book is smart and sassy, able to wink at one moment and be deadly sincere in the next. These are qualities that the team would hone and refine for Little Shop of Horrors three years later.

Nick Choksi, Marla Louissaint, Santino Fontana, Clark Johnson, James Earl Jones, and Jeff Blumenkrantz star in Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
(© Joan Marcus)

While Rosewater isn't quite in the same league as Little Shop (one of the most produced shows in America), it's still considerably more enjoyable and more socially relevant than many of the new musicals being written in 2016. It deserves to be pulled out of its obscurity so it can play theaters all across the American heartland, just like its little sister.