Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Wildcats Take on the Fighting Irish: Of Rockne and the Gipper, 'Something in the Game' Gives It the Old College Try -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Something in the Game
An All-American Musical
American Music Theatre Project
at Northwestern University
Josephine Louis Theater, Evanston, IL
Thru August 5

Ten years ago, I ventured to Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana to see a world premiere musical called Knute Rockne: All-American.

Already a rabid musical lover and avid theater attendee throughout Chicagoland, neither catching a world premiere nor patronizing TATC was all that unusual, though the combination was a bit novel. 

But other than Damn Yankees, sports-themed musicals are particularly rare.

Still, as I'm not a Notre Dame fan nor intrigued much beyond the basics about its storied coach of yore, it was more the allure of a world premiere and some decent reviews--I wasn't yet blogging my own with regularity--that prompted the drive out to NW Indiana.

Though I only have vague memories and my Shows-Seen Database to reference, while I appreciated the effort I didn't find Knute Rockne: All-American all that winning.

Photo credit on all: Justin Barbin
And if the show has been staged again locally or elsewhere in these intervening years, I am not

Still, I was glad to note a new mounting of the show--now christened Something in the Game--as part of the American Musical Theatre Project at Northwestern, and even happier to be invited to see and review it on Opening Night.

My understanding in that the work has been considerably revamped, with composer/lyricist Michael Mahler adding and/or substituting a number of new songs into the score. (Director, choreographer and AMTP Artistic Director David Bell also collaborated on the lyrics. The show's book is by Buddy Farmer.)

I'm unable to cite specific modifications, and even with the new title, Something in the Game remains largely a musical biography of Knute Rockne.

And per the rating recorded in my database from 2008, I can't say my opinion has greatly changed a decade later.

The show--featuring some talented NU students and starring several stellar area pros--has superb performances, several strong tunes and some genuine highlights.

As demonstrated across multiple original musicals--Hero, October Sky--Mahler is a fine composer, and "Go, Go, Go," "Completing the Forward Pass / Never Saw It Coming," "Fighting Irish," "There's Something in the Game," and "All American" are all enjoyable songs (among others), well-rendered.

And while I feel Something in the Game needs to narrow its focus, including a bit less of the narrative devoted to Fighting Irish players (most notably the famed and ill-fated George Gipp, played by Adrian Aguilar) hanging out at a South Bend gambling den, one of the Act II numbers staged at Jimmy the Goat's is really fantastic.

Weaving together a splendidly sassy singer named Thelma (Rashada Dawan) employed by Jimmy the Goat (the always terrific James Earl Jones II), a chorus line (comprised of Wildcat men and women) and several Irish players (also college students), "The Shift" feels like a production number you might see performed on the Tony Awards. 

The singing, dancing, imagination and connection to Rockne's gridiron innovations are truly that inspired.

Unfortunately, most of the musical's dramaturgical elements--the script, structure, continuity, breadth of focus--fall considerably short of championship caliber.

Like many other biographical musicals--or even plays and movies--Something in the Game suffers in too broadly trying to cover its subject's life story, rather than focusing more compellingly on an emblematic aspect or two.

And though Rockne's discovery, motivation and ceaseless if often chagrined faith in Gipp--who becomes an All-American only shortly before delivering his famed deathbed speech that the coach later reprises in "Ordinary Heroes"--is rather compelling, this comes well after an odd opening that depicts the legendary Knute pursuing another job during halftime.

This is followed by a flashback to Rockne's youth in Chicago, his arrival at Notre Dame and his time there as a player, chemist--yes, we actually see him discussing formulas--and assistant coach.

Though--as in 2008--Stef Tovar does a nice job as Rockne, his adult earnestness saps the early backstory scenes of youthful charm. (Why not use an actual college kid as the young Rockne?)

It also struck me as strange that those getting a 2-1/2 hour rundown about Knute Rockne will learn that he once was a Logan Square postal worker, but not that he would die in a plane crash in 1931 at the age of 43. (I don't think it can be presumed everyone knows this anymore).

Much better are some sweet courtship scenes between the romantically awkward "Rock" and Bonnie (a delightful and wonderfully-sung Dara Cameron), who becomes his wife.

Eventually and repeatedly, we will see her exasperation with Knute's tunnel vision focus on football, rather than family. (Billy, played by young Charlie Herman, is the only one of the Rocknes' four actual children depicted within.) But Cameron's lustrous take on "If There Had Been Roses" is another standout moment in a show that has many, despite narrative flaws.

The coach also inspires frequent frustration in his boss, Father Walsh (James Rank, another fine pro), largely because he routinely defies him. For a show seemingly concocted to honor the hallowed Knute Rockne, Something in the Game often makes him seem like quite a lout. 

While a bio-musical like this certainly needn't be historically precise in terms of how many football games Notre Dame won in a given season between 1918-30, I was genuinely befuddled in trying to follow the chronology, given the opening scene, the flashback, the working in of Gipp and the closing of the flashback loop in a way that seems to confound.

There are also three different songs that feel as though they should close out Act I.

That each of these songs is very good plays into my overall gist about Something in the Game.

Structurally the show is rather messy, but whenever people are singing and/or dancing, it's really quite enjoyable.

With deference to Rockne having popularized the forward pass, the experience is a bit akin to watching a quarterback and screaming:

"Throw it away! Take the sack! Don't force it! No! No! No! ....

"Touchdown!!! Woo-hoo! Way to go! That was awesome!"


Ken said...

Play goes postal. Pass on Knute.

Ken said...

Knute goes postal. Pass play by.

Hemingway1955 said...

Knute's a hoot. Play's a fumble.

mganchanmi said...