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God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Review by Sean McQuaid

The latest Left-Hand Theatre production may have come out of left field, but it was definitely worth catching. The world needs more plays like God Bless You, Mister Rosewater. 

This musical satire (based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel and crafted by the celebrated songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) chronicles the misadventures of Elliot Rosewater (Greg Stapleton) as he strives to find a worthwhile purpose for his fabulous family fortune, which he manages through the Rosewater Foundation. He eventually settles on using his money to help needy people in his hometown of Rosewater, Indiana. 

Elliot's family and peers think he's crazy to even associate with the lower classes (let alone waste good money on them), and opportunistic lawyer Norman Mushari (Joey Baglole) takes advantage of the situation by trying to have Elliot declared insane in hopes that the Foundation's millions will go to Mushari's clients, money-hungry distant relations of the Rosewater clan.

The show confronts timeless social issues such as poverty, inequity, class structures and conservatism, doing so in a realistic but hopeful fashion while never turning preachy or losing its sense of humour. As director Jonathan C. Stewart says in his program notes, the story offers no easy answers-the world is still a greedy, stupid, mean-spirited place come the end of the play; but even if one can't change the world, one can still change himself. Elliot Rosewater reinvents himself for the better, and in so doing he makes life better for many other people.

This musical's slyly subversive advocacy of respect and compassion for all humanity is more timely than ever now that much of North America is abandoning and even demonizing its less fortunate people with self-satisfied gusto. Our own nation might benefit immensely from locking the likes of Mike Harris, Ralph Klein, Preston Manning, and the National Post crowd in some cozy theatre where they would be forced to watch this show over and over again until enlightenment comes out their ears.

Ideology aside, Left-Hand's Rosewater is first and foremost a fun show. It's a weird story about a very weird character with weird passions (Elliot's obsessions include firefighting and science fiction), which makes for an amusingly absurd tone. Stewart and company exploit this with a variety of playful little touches, such as the musical's god-like narrator (Stuart Neatby) spelling out the terms of intermission for the audience, or Mushari and his staff handing out delightful propaganda brochures aimed at turning "Plain Clean Average Americans" against the "lunatic" Elliot Rosewater. At the same time, Stewart never shrinks from the script's serious side-the sequence where Elliot goes truly mad while musing about his family history and his wartime experiences is rendered in an eerily expressionistic and genuinely disturbing fashion, for instance.

The Arts Guild is always a difficult playing space, but it's downright miraculous that Left-Hand manages to squeeze a variety of large musical numbers into it-and apart from the lighting not quite managing to take it all in at times, they pull it off. The singing, dancing and acting ability of the cast varies (Baglole is a bit too tentative and self-conscious as Mushari for instance), but they all acquit themselves capably and some are quite impressive. Stapleton is a revelation as Elliot Rosewater-he perfectly captures the character's guileless good will, and proves himself to be an appealing, endearing musical performer in the process. His vocal reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, but very rarely-this is one of his best performances ever.

This show also gives us one of the best Left-Hand productions to date, too. Or as Elliot Rosewater might put it, "I love you goddamn sons of bitches, I really do!"

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