Cotuit Center/CCCC's "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater": Uncultured Pearls?

"God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater"
(Poster Design by Margaret Cahill)

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, a musical co-production by Cape Cod Community College (at its Tilden Arts Center) and the Cotuit Center for the Arts, is based on the 1965 Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same name (without the book's subtitle Pearls before Swine). First produced in 1979, this was the initial collaboration of a team that would go on to success in numerous Disney films and stage adaptations, with the Book and Lyrics by the late Howard Ashman and Music by Alan Menken. It had a very brief life off-Broadway, and has pretty much been ignored since, though it's due to have a five-performance concert run as part of the New York City Centre's Encore! Off-Center series this July. As a very early work by Ashman and Menken, it's also a relatively uncultured one, but it does have a few pearls to offer. This production is the New England premiere of the piece. Since the work is so obscure, a bit of synopsis is called for; given its complex storyline, that's a bit of a challenge.

As the Vonnegut novel puts it, in his typically sardonic wit, with its very first sentence: “A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.” In this play, the sum of over eighty million dollars is announced by a heavenly voice. A young lawyer, Norman Mushari (Dominic Fucile) notes this is the fortune of the Rosewater family that prospers within their own Foundation, and that the rules call for immediate expulsion of any officer deemed to be insane. Meanwhile, Eliot Rosewater (Andrew Nesom), President of the Foundation, discusses his recent psychiatry appointment with his wife Sylvia (Rachel Hatfield). He's got a drinking problem and some PTSD-like symptoms, having mistakenly slain a teenage noncombatant in war (his doctor's prognosis: “untreatable”). At a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, Eliot yells out that the characters on stage should save their oxygen (it's the tomb scene from Aida). Subsequently, he goes into hiding. Sylvia goes to see Eliot's father, Senator Rosewater (Norbert Brown) to confer about Eliot's letter sent to her from Elsinore California, as though she were Ophelia and he were Hamlet. Later, at various volunteer firehouse brigades, he warns of the combustibility of oxygen and is dragged off stage at a science fiction convention raving about the author Kilgore Trout (Raven Clarke). Eliot travels to Rosewater, Indiana, where he intends to set up a branch of the Foundation to help the citizenry, who are poor, illiterate, depressed and forever pregnant, with two phone lines (a red one for fire reports, a black one for just talking). Sylvia joins him and whips up some snazzy fare that the locals resist in preference to cheese nips; she has a breakdown and is sent to a mental hospital, then advised to take a trip abroad. The Indiana locals cheer Eliot and the changes his philanthropy has brought them.

Meanwhile, Mushari visits the Rosewater kin in Rhode Island, Fred (Chris Kassarjian) and Caroline (Emily Tullock), telling them they are being swindled out of a fortune. When Sylvia returns from her vacation, she asks Eliot for a divorce. The Senator demands that Eliot return, and he agrees, though insisting his return will be by bus. Eliot tells the bus driver to stop, and ends up in a mental hospital himself. (Obviously, once Eliot planned to use the Rosewater Foundation actually to help people, he must have been insane, right?). To prove him insane, Mushari had stated that some fifty-seven women claimed Eliot as the father of their children. The suit is dropped when Eliot proudly proclaims his love for all his “children” and makes them all his heirs, diluting the suit by Fred and Caroline.

There's quite a bit more plotting than that, but let this summary suffice. (Though of local interest is the Cotuit connection, where Eliot grew up and his mother died in a 1937 sailing accident, or Kilgore Trout's Hyannis connection working in a stamp redemption store there). The humor, most of it direct from Vonnegut's novel, is quite timely given the current political campaigns. The score (with numbers such as “The Rosewater Foundation”, the “I, Eliot Rosewater” finale, and Hatfield's comedic rendition of “Cheese Nips”) has irony aplenty, but not up to the standards that Ashman and Menken eventually set. (The program notes that there were additional lyrics provided by Dennis Green for two songs). This production had several high points, including Julie Ellis-Clayton's delivery and Raven Clarke's appearance as Trout. The show is Directed here by Vana Trudeau, with Choreography by Michelle Colley and Andrea Lockhart, Music Direction by Lisa Goodwin-Taylor, Scenic Design by Lauren Duffy, Lighting Design by Kendra Murphy, Costume Design by Greta Bieg, and Sound Design by John Bishop. The cast also includes Gioia Sabatinelli, Sean Whalen, Meghan Allard, April Crowley, Dan Svirsky, Taylor Guildford, Mary Cirpriani-Pratt, Emily Entwisle, Amie McFarlane, Adam Harris and the standout versatility of Tyler Burke.

This is a unusual opportunity to see a rarely performed early work by two masters in their field as they began to develop the skills that would later make them so incredibly successful, with Tonys and Oscars in their future. Fortunately for theatergoers, they would follow the advice given in Vonnegut's last words on the subject: “tell them to be fruitful and multiply”.

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