WHAT “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater”
WHEN | WHERE Through July 30, New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St.
INFO $25-$115; 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org
BOTTOM LINE A weirdly sweet and dark mess, cheerfully and impeccably produced.
Jeanine Tesori is ending her astonishing four years as founding artistic director of Encores! Off-Center with another daring resuscitation of a musical she believes we should know.
This one is really off-center. And we are delighted to have made its acquaintance, but suspect we won’t need to see it again.
“God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” is based on Kurt Vonnegut’s 1965 picaresque novel about, for starters, the value of human beings. Written in 1979 and quickly ignored, this is the first musical by author-lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, who went on to write the stage musical “Little Shop of Horrors” and the songs for Disney’s animated films “The Little Mermaid” (1989) and “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), before Ashman died of AIDS in 1991.
What a weirdly sweet and strange, dark mess this is. And Michael Mayer, the ace Tony-winning director of “Spring Awakening” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” doesn’t hesitate to juxtapose the contrasting intentions in a cheerful world of pop-art colors and musical-comedy archetypes.
Santino Fontana is wonderful — vocally and dramatically — as Eliot Rosewater, head of his wealthy family’s foundation who doubts the usefulness of giving away money to privileged New Yorkers. He travels the country (a colorful U.S. map hangs above), asking, “What the hell are people for?” then finds happiness serving forgotten, hopeless people in the small town his family owns.
Of course, there is a conniving lawyer (played with evil verve by Skylar Astin), a baffled and increasingly unbalanced wife (the fine Brynn O’Malley), outrageously unlovable poor people and lots of zany asides. There is plenty more, including the messianic Eliot’s obsession with volunteer fire departments and “a planet held together with oxygen trying to combine with other things.” Really, you don’t need to know.
The score flips wildly from foolish hymn-tinged songs to a twisted, apocalyptic warning that could have been written by Kurt Weill.
Oh, and James Earl Jones is in this, mostly unseen as a “Voice Not Unlike God,” then briefly in a cameo as Kilgore Trout, a recurring character in Vonnegut’s novels. We learn that people need two things — to be fed and to be respected, and that respect should be given to people who don’t deserve it.
That’s silly, but a little profound.