To See or Not to See: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
“Encores! Off-Center” has done it again: it breathes new life into the relatively unknown and unsung Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which opened last night at New York City Center.
Yes, it’s a musical based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Vonnegut is one of the most admired American writers of the twentieth century, and his novels– including Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions— are imaginative, socially conscious, political, sardonic, and emotionally robust. But, his work seems like an odd choice for a musical. Yet, as crafted by famed songwriting team Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is a quirky, delightful, and utterly original little show that aspires to incrementally, coaxingly move its audience.
As in their hit musical Little Shop of Horrors, Menken and Ashman explore socio-economic divides and the hope for a better tomorrow in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Eliot Rosewater (Santino Fontana) is a restless, well-meaning war vet and president of his family’s multi-million-dollar Rosewater Foundation. Yet, his position and wealth give him no pleasure. So, he moves to his family’s seat in Rosewater, Indiana, to invest in the downtrodden, poor community and improve the lives of the townspeople. He wants to care for them, he claims, because no one else does. But his family back in New York City and an upstart lawyer Norman Mushari (Skylar Astin) find his social conscience worrisome, and Mushari hatches a scheme to oust Eliot Rosewater from the Foundation. As with most Vonnegut stories, the specter of World War II looms large, and Eliot Rosewater’s traumatic war experience subtly, painfully gives shape to his sense of purpose and worldview.
The undeniable star of this show is Santino Fontana. Fontana is a reliably wonderful actor, but his performance as the good-hearted, troubled Eliot Rosewater is masterful– quite simply, this is the best I’ve ever seen him. His Rosewater is a full-bodied, perfectly imperfect hero who thinks and feels deeply. Fontana brings us to hilarious highs and tender, graceful lows, crafting an Eliot Rosewater who is equal parts lovable, gruff, hopeful, wounded, and compassionate. (Eliot’s catchphrase, “You sons of bitches,” becomes a poetic refrain under Fontana’s care, spoken with conviction and guts.) His heartbreaking soliloquy about Rosewater’s wartime experience was just one highlight in a night full of impressive, memorable turns by one of the finest Broadway actors of his generation.
Fontana’s performance is aided by a lovely score by Menken and Ashman. (You have Menken and Ashman to thank for giving you the soundtrack to your childhood: they wrote the songs for Disney favorites The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.) The music, driven by an unpretentious piano, is yearning and optimistic. Musical highlights include the bouncy “Thank God for the Volunteer Fire Brigade,” the melodic “Dear Ophelia,” the moving “Thirty Miles from the Banks of the Ohio,” the neurotic “Cheese Nips,” and the hilarious “The Rhode Island Tango.”
In a passionate, high-stakes election year, it’s important to have a show like Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater on the New York stage. If nothing else, it’s an important reminder of what good an American with too much money can do if he were to help downtrodden communities by sharing his wealth. Instead of acting like an opportunistic demagogue, the Rosewater millionaire acts selflessly and compassionately. Frankly, we could use a little more of that this year.
Tickets for Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater are on sale through July 30, 2016.
Photo Credit: New York City Center