To open its 50th anniversary season, Goodspeed Musicals has decided to remount the show that opened its 10th anniversary season, the Lew Brown, B.G. DeSylva and Ray Henderson 1927 success, “Good News,” which was responsible for introducing such songs as “The Varsity Drag” and “The Best Thing in Life Are Free.”
The good news is that the show assertively demonstrates Goodspeed’s commitment to the preservation of the American musical by giving audiences access to a once popular show that is infrequently revived. This production is apparently using the revised concept and texts from the 1975 Broadway revival and the subsequent 1993 revisal by the Music Theater of Wichita, with specific witty enhancements for this production by Jeremy Desmon. In this case, too many cooks do NOT spoil the broth, helping to make what was originally a genuine chestnut a little more palatable to a contemporary audience.
Not that this tale of excitable college students in the late 1920’s revving up for the big football game doesn’t produce a bit of unavoidable wincing. After all, today’s sensibilities would rightly contend that the gridironers’ maltreatment of eager, willing freshman, Sylvester, to be considered bullying. His hero worship of the team’s quarterback, Tom Marlow, makes him embarrassingly grateful to be tossed in the guys’ dirty laundry bin or hung by a wedgie from a lamp pole. Mitt Romney got chastised for less and here we’re supposed to laugh at it. Ah, I guess those were the days!
In addition, the coeds’ attitudes toward the aforementioned quarterback (“He’s a Ladies’ Man”) painfully remind us what young women were expected to come away with from their elite school, and it wasn’t exactly career preparation. But the revised versions have changed a male astronomy professor in the original to a competent, knowledgeable female who, appropriately for that era, is easily dismissed by her opposite gender colleagues.
At the same time, the coach’s downplaying of the importance of academics is supposed to be amusing and endearing, though our state university’s own experience in men’s basketball reminds us of the serious real world consequences that can result. Poor Tom, with his stressed out mind focused on the big game and increasing pressure from his society girlfriend, Patricia Bingham, has failed his astronomy exam and will not be allowed to play. Patricia enlists her brainy cousin Connie, who assists in the school’s observatory, to tutor Tom to pass a make-up exam. As sweet, unpretentious Connie works with the conflicted Tom, romance naturally ensues.
There’s another small hurdle an audience has to get over in order to give in fully to this production (which you ultimately will, rest assured) and that’s director-choreographer Vince Pesce’s opening dance performed to the show’s lively overture. It’s not that we don’t mind tap dancing football players, but they look like dancers, not hefty fullbacks. That’s a bit disconcerting until one discovers a few scenes later that Tait College’s football team is indeed supposed to be a scraggly, sad sack group, with essentially only one star, Tom, and only one other player, Beef Saunders, capable of tackling or blocking.
Once you quickly dismiss these concerns, then the really good news is that Goodspeed has dished up yet another carefully constructed, vividly enjoyable production. Thanks to the interpolation of several other popular standards from other DeSylva, Brown and Henderson shows such as “You’re The Cream in My Coffee,” “Button Up Your Overcoat,” and “Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” a genuinely peppy atmosphere is achieved.
The show offers ample opportunities for dance, which thanks to Pesce, will not disappoint Goodspeed audiences’ expectations. While the small stage does pose some limitations–there are a few too many walks around in circles for my taste–Pesce does excel and surprise in two numbers in particular, the wildly innovative “Varsity Drag” which calls upon dance trends from the twenties and hints at dance trends which will follow, and “Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” in which the team’s manager, Pooch, leads the guys on a half-time meditation that is taken slower and more seriously than one would expect, to stunning emotional effect.
Ross Lekites is handsome and athletic as the initially self-consumed Tom, who demonstrates a very fine singing voice and ample dancing and movement skills. As the two women in his life, Chelsea Morgan Stock is potent as the mousy, academic tutor who allows her caring personality to shine through while Lindsay O’Neil’s sorority-gal Pat looks, acts and sounds the part, as if she just stepped out of one of the films of the period, while slowly revealing more of her underlying manipulations.
As what we would call today the school tramp, Tessa Kaye maintains the edge on her Babe O’Day while finding something quaintly endearing about her character who has literally worked her way through the entire football team. She maintains a lively, occasionally caustic and overbearing presence, while dancing up a frenzy when required. She is matched by the slender, lithe Barry Shafrin as her next targeted victim, Bobby Randall, the team’s fragile benchwarmer, whose comedic presence and contagious likeability, make him a worthy and agile dance partner.
As the older couple, Beth Glover is believably confident and authoritative as Professor Kenyon, while Mark Zimmerman is fine as single-minded football coach Bill Johnson, who both lose their composure as they rekindle their undergraduate affections. They also get to delight the audience with a jaunty “You’re the Cream in My Coffee.” Additional comedy is provided by Max Perlman as the overeager manager Pooch and to an extent by Myles McHale, as Beef, who physically matches his character’s name while falling apart emotionally as his former girlfriend Babe gravitates toward another man.
Scenic designer Court Watson encases the stage in a colorful proscenium, while creating a microcosm of an ivy university on the stage itself, with compact bright red triangles with the Tait name hanging from streetlights and building facades, an observatory with a portable telescope that slides on and off the stage, a sorority house and a boathouse hosting a celebratory ball. Charlie Morrison’s lighting is particularly important on this show, as he employs a shimmering palette of color to highlight different character’s faces as they sing about their feelings.
Tracy Christensen has clearly jumped at the opportunity to create a diverse array of costumes that range from bulked up football uniforms, sorority lounge wear, late 20’s campus wear and elegant evening wear for the ball that concludes the show. As usual, Michael O’Flaherty’s musical direction doesn’t overwhelm the singing, while Dan DeLange has re-orchestrated the show for eight musicians, which somehow captures the scope and excitement of a score written for a significantly larger band. David Krane’s dance arrangements are especially resonant, as they simultaneously compel the dances forward while complementing the specific movements of the dancers.
Although Desmon does include a few droll shout-outs to the 21st century in his adaptation–Pluto wasn’t a planet yet in 1927 nor is it now in 2013–the show remains grounded in the roaring twenties, with Faye exemplifying the appeal of the flapper. As one of the most successful musicals of the 1920’s and later made into an equally popular film, “Good News” no doubt helped to popularize and perpetuate college football culture. And doesn’t the oversize football player who dominates the show curtain resemble a certain former US President who made his initial impact in films in a number of college football stories? Just sayin’!
“Good News” runs through June 22 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT with performances on Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2 p.m.), Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.). For information and tickets call the Goodspeed Box Office at 860.873.8668 or visit the Goodspeed website at www.goodspeed.org.