Saturday, May 19, 2018

400th production: Favorite-literary-son Vonnegut gets milestone position at the new Phoenix Theatre

Humble benefactor Eliot Rosewater
Catching up with "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" at the start of its second weekend, I found the new Phoenix Theatre's Russell Stage comfortable in all respects. It was just the feeling to have while taking in the musical stage adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same title.

That's because Vonnegut's work tends to disturb as well as amuse. Most aspects of his pervasive wry humor are as likely to ruffle your feathers as soothe you. "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" meets the mark, with the particular benefit of the opportunity to appreciate the burgeoning partnership of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. They would go on to become a worthy successor to the Sherman Brothers as songwriters for Disney films.

The show has a book by Ashman, and additional lyrics by Dennis Green. Bryan Fonseca directs the Phoenix production, which inaugurates the new facility's main stage, and Tim Brickley makes a crucial contribution as musical director, getting the songs in apple-pie order. Among other design credits, the versatility and flair in Bernie Killian's set and Ben Dobler's projections must not go unmentioned.
Eliot (in helmet) joins into the part-time bravado of a volunteer fire company.

Particularly helping the performance make a good first impression is Mariel Greenlee's choreography, with its flip-book-style stop, jerk, and flow sequences in "The Rosewater Foundation."

That ensemble number introduces us to the freewheeling style of Eliot Rosewater, scion of a deep-rooted, deep-pocketed Indiana family. His foundation dispenses largesse with loosey-goosey benevolence, and the plot soon rests upon an ambitious young lawyer's scheme for wresting control of the family fortune from Eliot. If he can be found certifiably crazy, the golden goose may be compelled to lay eggs for a feckless Rhode Island cousin, incidentally enriching their attorney.

The Rosewater Foundation staff and clients stiffen under the wayward leadership of Eliot.
Critical to the production's success is the fey appeal of Patrick Goss as the title character. With his unruly mop of hair and silly-putty facial expressions, Goss' Eliot represents the right wing's notion of liberal snowflakery avant le lettre. He is peripatetically obsessed with volunteer firefighting units, the reason for which is rooted in a traumatic war incident.

The time of the action is 1963, before the epochal Kennedy assassination; but the parameters of today's political climate were already taking shape. And Eliot represents the viewpoint that everyone deserves respect and dignity, and that "the money river" shouldn't flow along channels accessible only to those already wealthy. Feeling trapped within the station in life one was born into should not deprive anyone of a chance to thrive, he feels.

Typically, however, Vonnegut doesn't spare the poor people of the Rosewater hometown satirical
Kilgore Trout expounds under the skeptical appraisals of McAllister (left) and Sen. Rosewater.
thrusts. Indianapolis' most famous native son in literature saw the seeds of corruption at all levels of society. In the show, the low taste and self-centered values of provincial folks are barriers as firm as the self-satisfaction and narrow-mindedness of the well-off, such as Eliot's father, Senator Rosewater (Charles Goad), and his attorney, McAllister (Mark Goetzinger). Among the several roles he plays with gusto, Rob Johansen, as Vonnegut alter ego Kilgore Trout, makes that outlook explicit in a second-act ensemble number.

Townspeople celebrate their good fortune unto the next generation.
Vonnegut's fiction shows an even-handed waspishness and threads it through the lives of shallow people. Large themes are presented in a thought-provoking way, and when cast on the musical stage as they are here, characters without much depth are perfectly suited for Broadway pizazz when they sing and dance. Although Ashman and Menken haven't really hit their stride in this show, the elements of a brilliant partnership are becoming evident. The ensemble numbers show especially well the range of relevant rhymes Ashman could be master of: "The Rosewater Foundation" and "Plain Clean Average Americans" — though not every word was clear Friday night — are chock full of period references. The cleverness of these requires a glossary (which the program provides) and recalls the topical nimbleness of Cole Porter's "You're the Top."

For me, Menken's music is more merely serviceable here than it later became when the partnership flowered in "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and "Beauty and the Beast." And, of course, "Little Shop of Horrors," which put their names on the map, had already showed their aptitude for the stage musical. In this show, "Look Who's Here" has a catchy tune to match Ashman's gratitude-rich text; otherwise, the melodies mainly do just what they're required to do. One of them, "Thank God for the Volunteer Fire Brigade," is a great male chorus of rousing charm.

Also impressive, and suited to represent the underlying sentimentality of much Vonnegut, is the uneasy love duet between Eliot and his wife, Sylvia. It was staged brilliantly, with its basis in a phone call prompting the couple's gradual entanglement in those long curly telephone cords we were all familiar with years ago. As the pair's wistfulness moved toward renewed ardor, the cords and the couple suggested a game of cat's cradle (perhaps a deliberate Vonnegut allusion). Emily Ristine caught the stressed patience and increased emotional fragility of Mrs. Rosewater heartbreakingly.

Norman Mushari peruses the file that feeds his avaricious dreams.
Ike Wellhausen, like Goss appearing in his Phoenix Theatre debut, made a great villain from the first time his left eyebrow shot up in an aside to the audience. His spot-on performance of the underhanded lawyer Mushari brings up one of the production's disadvantages, however. In the long run, I'm sure, Phoenix musicals will include a band rather than recorded tracks. Everyone in "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," knew the timing of the instrumental accompaniment, and the blend between live voices and the band was almost perfect. But a recorded accompaniment never breathes, of course, and "Mushari's Waltz" needs a pianist forging vivid duo spontaneity with the actor-singer. As firmly as Wellhausen knew the song and the timing of phrases, his performance of this solo Friday exposed the inevitable, though slight, mismatch of live versus "dead." The sound system in the new room, by the way, is great.

The large cast amounts to a celebration of the Phoenix's durability and artistic stature over several decades: Besides those already mentioned, we had welcome three-dimensional portrayals of two-dimensional characters by Suzanne Fleenor, Scot Greenwell, Devan Mathias, Deb Sargent, Diane Boehm Tsao, Jean Childers Arnold, Peter Scarbrough, and Josiah McCruiston to revel in. They range from Phoenix founders to relative newcomers. The gathering of such a wealth of diverse talents and energies merits a sustained "Bravo!" and is a fine harbinger of many more decades of Phoenix success. Who could wish this excellent organization anything less?


[Photos by Zach Rosing]