By Adam Cohen
“God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” Kurt Vonnegut’s novel that was adapted into a musical by the legendary songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken is currently enjoying a production as part of City Center Encores! Off-Center series, running through Saturday, July 30th. It’s a fascinating show that functions and malfunctions on several levels. Musicalizing Vonnegut is difficult. However, given the current political climate and general disdain for one-percenters, it is a perfect show to revive.
The themes of economic justice resonate clearly, despite the novel being written in 1965, and the musical coming to life originally in 1979.
The show tells the story of Eliot Rosewater (Santino Fontana), a millionaire war veteran who decides to spend his foundation’s fortune on an impoverished town after being inspired by the utopian vision of novelist Kilgore Trout. But there are forces who want to put the kibosh on Eliot’s philanthropy—like Norman Mushari (Skylar Astin), a lawyer plotting to have Eliot declared insane so that his marginalized relatives can inherit and run the foundation, while also cashing in himself.
The production succeeds in the casting of the leads. Santino Fontana sings strongly, especially in duets with his wife Sylvia (Brynn O’Malley). Eliot fancies himself Hamlet, though with a less clear purpose. In his letter (and song), he addresses Sylvia as Ophelia, and explains that he is searching for something he must find on his own. O’Malley’s take on “Cheese Nips,” an ode to class conflict around food that is brilliant. These duets the best numbers and show the now realized promise of Ashman and Menkin in their most pleasant, sardonic, musicality. This is also where the vision and themes of Vonnegut and the musical’s creators mesh best.
Where they flail are the songs with patriotic melodies, despite Ashman satirical lyrics. The atonality runs thin quickly even with an amazingly game ensemble. Thankfully, we quickly get back to a duet between Fontana and O’Malley. Kate Wetherhead and Kevin Del Aguila also shine in their numbers as the Rhode Island Rosewaters who Mushari lures in to fighting for their spurious birthright. Astin relishes his devilish role and shows off his musical chops nicely. The role itself is fairly underwritten but the actor is having such a good time that the audience rides the wave fully.
James Earl Jones is heard throughout the show as the voice of God and plays a core Vonnegut role as author Kilgore Trout. He is stalwart and clearly having a good time, as does much of the cast.
Encores! is to be applauded for continuing to fulfill its mission by reviving hardly-seen shows, like this one from 1979. For history buffs, Vonnegut and James Earl Jones completists, and Ashman & Menkin champions, this is the perfect production.
For more information and tickets, visit www.nycitycenter.org.