Another Phoenix Theatre historic milestone was made when the 35-year-old organization previewed “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” on the mainstage at its brand-spanking-new Cultural Center located at 705 N. Illinois Street in downtown Indianapolis. Having missed the April 28 goodbye ceremony, parade and ribbon cutting at its new home due to surgery, it was especially gratifying for me to be in attendance. As a founding board member with a career intertwined with the Phoenix, as an actor in several plays and as reviewer of its shows during its entire history, I couldn’t have been more proud as an audience member to witness the beginning of the theatre’s newest chapter.
And what better choice for the Phoenix’s inaugural production in the new space than a quirky musical based on Indianapolis native son Kurt Vonnegut‘s 1965 satirical novel of the same title. With book & lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken (the same songwriting team that created “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin,”) the musical premiered off-Broadway in 1979. The novel tells the story of Eliot Rosewater, a millionaire who abandons New York City after developing a social conscience. A World War II veteran and volunteer firefighter, Rosewater establishes the Rosewater Foundation in Rosewater, Indiana, where he gives away generous sums of money and unconditional love to anyone who needs it in the poor, backward town.
Directed by Bryan Fonseca, the cast reflected the Phoenix founder’s knack for choosing just the right talent for his shows. In this case, the ensemble ranges from three Phoenix founding members, Chuck Goad (Senator Rosewater), Deb Sargent Shaver (Diana Moon Glampers) and Suzanne Fleenor (Psychiatrist, et al.) to Patrick Goss making his Phoenix debut as Eliot Rosewater.
Also included are veteran Indy actors, Rob Johansen (Charley Warmergran), Mark Goetzinger (McAllister), Emily Ristine (Sylvia), Scot Greenwell (Fred Rosewater) and Diane Tsao Boehm (Dawn Leonard). Other cast members are Jean Childers Arnold (Caroline Rosewater), Devan Mathias (Mary Moody), (Josiah McCruiston (Delbert Peach), Peter Scharbrough (Jerome Hayes) and Isaac Wellhausen (Norman Mushari).
With Goss distinguishing himself as the endearing humanitarian Eliot, Ristine also deserves high marks for her performance as his high-brow, long-suffering, fish-out-of-water wife, Sylvia. Thoroughly enjoyable was Sargent Shaver’s comedic performance as wacky Rosewater resident Diana Moon Glampers, who constantly calls Eliot just to chat.
As far as the show’s singing and dancing, the cast acquitted itself well under associate music director Jonathan Stombaugh and in the execution of Mariel Greenlee’s sprightly choreography. Some of my favorite production numbers were “Thank God for the Volunteer Fire Brigade” and Volunteer Fire Bridage (Part II) featuring men in the ensemble and “The Rhode Island Tango performed by Childers, Wellhausen and Greenwell. Ristine and Goss also shined in “Eliot& Sylvia.”
Of special interest to me was the show’s production elements which highlighted the venue’s new bells and whistles, providing the Phoenix with more options to enhance its storytelling capabilities, with its fly system, trapdoor, stage depth and wing space. What a wonderful canvas it was for the art created by music designer Tim Brickley, set designer Bernie Killian, lighting designer Lindsey Lyddan, Brittany Kugler’s costume design and Ben Dobler’s always first-rate projection design.
True to its mission, the Phoenix once again points out the disparity that exists in our society between the marginalized and those in power through its presentation of Vonnegut’s indictment of this country’s distribution of wealth, with its social and physiological consequences. At a time when the natonal dialogue is often ugly and mean-spirited, and attitudes about the oppressed are so harsh, Eliot Rosewater’s slogan “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind,” resonates now more than ever.
For tickets to “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater,” call the Phoenix Theatre box office at (317) 635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.