As the scion of the 14th wealthiest family in America, Eliot Rosewater (David Surkin) gives out checks to opera companies, scholars, and poets. But the only poem Eliot ever liked was written on a bathroom stall in Indiana, and his favorite books are the sci-fi fantasias of a weirdo recluse named Kilgore Trout. He drinks. He’s drawn to firehouses and radical generosity. Remember Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, in which one drunk renounces wealth to give respect to the disenfranchised? It turns out that the 1965 genre-straining novel was made into a musical way back in 1979, by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken (the duo who would later go on to bring us Little Shop of Horrors and Disney’s The Little Mermaid). Cast Aside Productions revives a brightly wacky God Bless You at the Portland Ballet Studio Theater, under the direction of Celeste Green.
God Bless You takes us from elite New York City to Eliot’s ancestral mansion back in Rosewater, Indiana, where he decides that he’s going to care about the regular, messed-up people there — because, as he says, no one else does. We move easily between settings, thanks to Cast Aside’s stripped-down set of blocks and just a few choice props: red plastic fireman’s hats, a steering wheel, several phones, and the Rosewater legal file — which literally glows when opened in the hands of the Rosewaters’ scheming lawyer Norman Mushari (Adam Gary Normand). And so away Eliot veers from his senator dad (Craig Capone) and his lovely blonde wife Sylvia (Rachel Jane Henry), and instead embraces a small town of struggling people, many of whom would look not at home in a Norman Rockwell scene.
The ensemble is deft and dynamic in portraying these folks, striking a balance between comedic tropes and poignancy. To name just a few: Hayden Jones is a lean and lurky Noyes Finnerty, the neighborhood felon; and Susie Assam has a superb voice and presence over a range of characters, including as the low-simmering Mary Moody, Rosewater sex worker and mother of three sets of twins. Another standout is the protean Vanessa Romanoff, whose physical comedy is virtuoso as lonely Dawn Leonard, as sniping Caroline Rosewater, and even in the ten seconds she plays as a kid on the street. Meanwhile, as the money-grubbing lawyer, Normand — who’s played many a singing bad guy around these parts — is terrific with his soaring voice, crack pacing, and cartoonishly villainous mug. And playing Trout, Vonnegut’s alter ego, is venerable Portland musician Samuel James, looking appropriately wry and incredulous.
As Eliot’s long-suffering Sylvia, Henry ranges from an ace comic breakdown, during a luncheon gone wrong (in the great number “Cheese Nips”) to a nuanced, tenderly performed duet with Eliot, over the phone, as their marriage ends. And as Eliot, Surkin shines at either end of the scion’s extremes. In one pitch-perfect scene, at the Met, one minute Eliot is quietly and quite reasonably wondering why, if the lovers in Aida are being shut into a tomb, they don’t stop singing to conserve oxygen — and the next minute, he’s on his feet and yelling. In between extremes, though, Surkin’s Eliot sometimes feels a little indistinct in affect, especially given the character’s famous eccentricity, trauma, and outrageously Christ-like capacity for love.
Musically, God Bless You is all about pastiche, and the show’s two-person music ensemble zips along through an entertaining array, including the rollicking vaudevillian song-and-dance of drunk, black-mustachioed firemen; a gospel-tinged paean to Eliot’s arrival in Rosewater; a sneery, vindictive tango between hateful all-Americans; and a celebration of Americana-on-steroids banality, replete with sparklers. The cast’s voices are at their best harmonizing a ravishing chorale, performed amidst the audience, and during which Rosewater’s townspeople express the dignity and hope that Eliot has given them.
In the eyes of his father, Eliot’s real radicalism is not so much giving to the poor as giving to people of bad taste and worse choices — who prefer Cheese Nips to roast lamb, who don’t read, who might sell their bodies or be addicts or betray him for a few bills. If Eliot’s right that they, too, deserve respect and dignity, whose place is it help them regain it? Now is as good a time as 1965 (or 1979) to be considering.
Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater | Cast Aside Productions | Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Music by Alan Menken; Directed by Celeste Green | Portland Ballet Studio Theater, 471 Forest Ave, Portland | Through October 28 | Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2:30 pm | $25 | castasideproductions.com