NYTheatre.com Review November 1, 2005
Reviewed by Martin Denton
If you see only one revival of a dopey, corny, light-headed 1920s college musical - and hey, you really should: you've been stressed out lately - then see the best and brightest of them all, Good News. Mel Miller and Musicals Tonight! are putting on this breezy, giddy, supremely silly musical comedy and they're having a ball; so is the audience. This is the most delightfully entertaining enterprise from Miller's consistently fine company in quite a while; also as tuneful and enjoyable a show as many of the much more expensive ones playing in Broadway houses just a few blocks away. (Good News is at the 45th Street Theatre, just yards away from Sweet Charity.)
Good News, like the many featherweight musical comedies that it inspired, is nothing more or less than a happy two hours of exuberant singing and dancing and tired but jolly gags. This kind of musical was the Mamma Mia! of its time, only the songs were brand new. And what songs!: how many scores can boast no fewer than four authentic standards, by which I mean songs that will probably be at least somewhat familiar to you, even almost 80 years after they were written? This show has 'em: "Lucky in Love," "Good News," "Varsity Drag," and "The Best Things in Life Are Free," the last of which actually still has the capacity to authentically thrill when its warm-and-easy refrain commences:
The moon belongs to everyone
The best things in life are free,
The stars belong to everyone
They gleam there for you and me.
The story revolves around Tom Marlow, the star of Tait College's football team. It's Thursday, and he's just flunked "Comical Charley" Kenyon's astronomy class! He can't play if he doesn't pass a makeup exam on Friday, and if he can't play, how can Tait beat dreaded rival Colton College in the big game on Saturday?
Tom's girlfriend Patricia, pretty but self-centered and snobbish, is acing Kenyon's class, but she's too busy organizing an affair for her sorority Pi Beta Phi to help him out, so she recommends her cousin Connie Lane for the job of Tom's tutor. Connie, like all the girls at Tait, worships Tom, and so she's only too glad for the chance to actually meet him. The two, of course, fall in love instantly ("And love can come to everyone / The best things in life are free"). Tom passes his test; he can play in the game. But what's this new complication? Oh no: Pat has decreed that if Tom wins the big game, she will allow him to marry her. What's he gonna do?
If you think that anything less satisfying than a Tait victory AND wedding bells for Connie and Tom are not somehow in the offing, well, you just aren't trying hard enough to get into the spirit of this show. It is, after all, entitled Good News: do not expect anything sour.
Do expect lots of other convoluted but temporary plot complications to ensue, involving such disparate characters as Tom's roommate Bobby Randall, who has been on the bench for two years of football games but is determined to get into the game once and for all; Babe, the seemingly dumb-but-cute co-ed who has set her cap for Bobby; Beef, the husky football player who used to date Babe; Pooch, the team's highly superstitious trainer; Coach Johnson; Professor Kenyon (who's revealed to not be such a hard-head after all); and a naive freshman named Sylvester who is willing to pay Bobby a quarter for the privilege of carrying coal for Tom (whom he calls Mr. Marlow).
It's a hoot and a howl. The jokes are frequent and often very lame, the songs come seemingly out of nowhere, the plot machinations are alternately random and absurd. But it all works remarkably well: this is a spectacularly entertaining show. It's also very much an ensemble piece, allowing lots of talented performers a chance to shine. The one that really knocked my socks off was Sandie Ross, a diminutive young lady with a powerful voice and a luminous disposition; she leads the company in "Varsity Drag" and "Good News" and particularly in the former comes as close as possible to stopping a show where the actors are all still on book and production values and choreography are necessarily limited by a two-week rehearsal period and off-off-Broadway budget. Also superb are Leo Ash Evens, who plays Georgie, a very minor character in the scheme of things, except when he gets to sing or dance, both of which he does splendidly; and Adam Shonkwiler, who is funny and appealing as Bobby, particularly in his lively second-act duet with Babe called "In the Meantime." Jonathan Osborne (Kenyon), Roger Rifkin (Coach), and Tad Wilson (Pooch) are all terrific too, as the "oldsters" in the show. Adam MacDonald, who is very tall, is a charming, big-voiced leading man, perfect for the role of Tom.
There's also a mystery guest star who makes an appearance in the second act that's an enormously fun surprise. I'm not saying anything more about it.
Musicals Tonight!, so unprepossessing and good-naturedly modest in its aims, is the ideal venue for a show like Good News: it would be ridiculous to put something so dated and foolish as this on Broadway (though it wouldn't surprise me if somebody did it anyway), but in the concert format for $19 a head it makes for a delightful evening out. Its silly high spirits are absolutely infectious as it lets us see what kind of middle-brow entertainment our great-grandparents cheered in the theatre. And its songs are winners.
In closing, all I can say - echoing the cast while cheering on this or that footballer in the show - is: Rah! Rah! Rah!