Although the explicit mission of the New York City Center Encores! series and the New York City Center Encores! Off-Center series doesn't seem to be explaining why some of the musicals revived didn't succeed during their original runs, that's definitely what this weekend's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater revival proved to me.
What's billed in the program as Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater was musicalized by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman as their first offering in 1979. My short assessment of the truncated initial production is that the transformers may have penned some highly entertaining ditties, but they didn't accord the 1965 Vonnegut manuscript a proper airing.
Before I elaborate, I ought to disclose that I've never read the Vonnegut novel-and don't plan to now. The whimsy with which the prolific author chose to treat genuinely serious subject matter never much floated my boat. So it may be that Menken and Ashman have been commendably true to Vonnegut as they transferred the story of Eliot Rosewater (intended to conjure thoughts of FDR son Elliot Roosevelt?) from the page to the stage.
Eliot (the always engaging Santino Fontana) is the rich but unhappy, presumed mentally unstable son of rich, dictatorial Senator (Clark Johnson). He's also the husband of Sylvia (Brynn O'Malley, who couldn't be better looking or sing more tartly). Wealth and marriage don't satisfy him, however. Only fireman and firehouses seem to energize him as well as his frequent praise of oxygen.
So after Eliot and family have been introduced--as has potential lawyer nemesis Norman Mushari (scene-stealing Skylar Astin)--he goes on a happiness hunt that leads him to a series of fire stations and eventually to Pisquontuit, Rhode Island, a forgotten village populated by what Donald Trump would instantly recognize as irredeemable losers. ("Pisquontuit" is pronounced "Piss on it," and if you think that's funny, you'll agree with the audience members surrounding me when I attended. You'll rate the tuner much more amusing that I do.)
Committing himself to the inhabitants and working to improve their economic circumstances, Eliot lures wife Sylvia--he often confuses her with Hamlet's Ophelia--to join him until she can take it no longer. In addition, he becomes the object of lawyer Mushari's campaign to locate a Rosewater relative who'll inherit the family money when Eliot is declared incompetent. He unearths Fred Rosewater (Kevin Del Aguila, doubling, as so many cast members do) and wife Caroline (Kate Wetherhead).
The courtroom trial that the gleefully conniving Mushari foresees, where a case might prevail contending that magnanimous Eliot must be off his rocker, is reminiscent of Longfellow Deeds's situation in the flawless 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town flick. That perhaps unconscious reference is only one of several drawbacks to the Vonnegut-Ashman-Menken script (with additional lyrics by Dennis Green).
Eliot's peregrinations happen randomly, not to say haphazardly, and since the heir initially has no goal in mind but seems only to be drifting, his sanity remains in question. The firehouse visits are at best quirky--and at first seem included merely to prompt a lively song and dance. The Pisquontuit folks aren't more than caricatures and don't earn the sympathy Vonnegut possibly confers on them. Mushari's villainy is spotty at best. As for the mistreated Sylvia/Ophelia, she winds up in a nunnery. Her landing there may be a Shakespeare-related joke, but it's not especially giggle-worthy. Or credible.
The authors do get around to explaining the origins of Eliot's discontent, which won't be disclosed here, although they do relate to his obsession with firehouses and their gallant occupants. Unfortunately, the revelation is held so long that when at last inserted, it feels like flawed dramaturgy, an attempt to disguise carelessness--"Hey, we'd better think of something fast to take care of this meandering storyline."
There is good news. The Ashman-Menken score is literate and tuneful, particularly "Mushari's Waltz (Magical Moment)," "Thirty Miles From the Banks of the Ohio" and "Thank God for the Volunteer Fire Brigade." The songs boast the team's strong points--Ashman's light-hearted way with words and Ashman's constantly appealing melodies. (That's the enticing blend that makes such a delight of their second outing, Little Shop of Horrors. There, their shifting of Roger Corman's 1960 comic shocker from celluloid to proscenium is front-to-back inspiration.)
Director Michael Mayer, with choreographer Lorin Lattaro's assistance, is so sure-handed about his assignment--and he gets so much eager cooperation from his cast--that often this God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater seems far more accomplished than it actually is. The always on-top-of-musical-things Chris Fenwick adds his conducting of the 14-piece band to the mixed mix.
The truth is that Vonnegut's tale is dealing with some mighty sober subjects--the marginalization of the impoverished, the narrow concerns of the corporate class, the dismissal as surely demented of those concerned with the less well-off. (Remind you of Presidential Campaign 2016?) Yet, long before the second-act wind-up the importance of Vonnegut's issues is scanted by the loosely handled page-to-stage treatment. Too bad. God hasn't adequately blessed Mr. Rosewater, after all.