PICKSINSIX Review: SOMETHING IN THE GAME
"A LOT OF PROMISES TO KEEP."
Smart, clever and inspiring... There is something magical stirring up the turf in Evanston. Something in the Game: An All-American Musical, with a book by Buddy Farmer, shepherded through development by director and choreographer David H. Bell and put to music by the multi-talented Michael Mahler, is now having a professional staging at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. An earlier version entitled ROCKNE received a major production in 2008 and there was an impressive staged reading in 2016, which I had the pleasure of seeing. The new musical, presented under the auspices of the American Music Theater Project(AMTP) at Northwestern University, tells the life and career of Notre Dame’s famed football coach Knute Rockne and Bell has assembled the top-shelf creative team and company necessary to bring this smart, clever and inspiring story to life.
What’s it about… Knute Rockne(1888-1931) grew up in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, the son of an immigrant craftsman. Rockne’s collegiate career began at Notre Dame in 1910 majoring in chemistry, playing football and developing creative ways to make a buck. Together with teammate Gus Dorais, Rockne is credited with incorporating the forward pass into the Notre Dame game plan. Later on, as head coach, Rockne recruited the legendary George Gipp whose play established Notre Dame as a national powerhouse and earned Gipp honors as the University’s first All American before his untimely death in December 1920. Rockne’s 13-year coaching career, cut short by a fatal plane crash in 1931, included the development of the Notre Dame Shift, a box formation that led the famed “Four Horsemen” to consecutive national championships in the mid-20s and solidified Rockne as one of the greatest coaches of all time. Against this professional backdrop, the musical delves into the deeper context of Rockne’s relationships with his family, administrators and his players, most notably Gipp, whose extraordinary skills on the gridiron and sordid exploits off it are at the core. Though Rockne is not always a devoted husband and father, he is a good and decent man we can cheer for who has, as it is told, “a lot of promises to keep.”
Impressive Equity lineup… The ‘Dream Team’ in this new version is front and center. Those long-associated with the material in the impressive Equity lineup - Stef Tovar(Rockne), Adrian Aguilar(Gipp) and Dara Cameron(Bonnie) - are joined by the formidable Chicago talents Rashada Dawan(Thelma), James Earl Jones II(Jimmy the Goat), James Rank(Father Walsh) and Brandon Springman(Coach Harper). Charlie Herman is perfect as young Billy Rockne. The high-energy ‘Special Team’ ensemble is the thrill of the show. Comprised of at least a dozen current students or recent Northwestern graduates, this spirited group of actors, singers and dancers play multiple roles and nail all the big numbers.
Rich and colorful… Northwestern alum Michael Mahler’s body of work is significantly expanded with the emergence of Something in the Game. With Farmer’s book and lyrics by Mahler and Bell, the production team also includes returning set designer Alan Schwanke and lighting designer Jesse Klug whose crisp and clean work is complemented by the rich and colorful Robert Kuhn period costumes, football jerseys and speakeasy outfits.
Raise the roof… Tovar is terrific as Rockne, leading the ensemble, driving the action and delivering the memorable ‘Ordinary Heroes.’ The tuneful Mahler/Bell score soars with Dawan in the saucy ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’, leading the cast in ‘All American’ and in Cameron’s ballads ‘Reach High’, ‘Father and Son’ and the magnificent ‘If There Had Been Roses.’ The cast numbers include ‘Fighting Irish’, ‘There’s Something in the Game’ and the Four Horsemen stomping ‘The Shift.’ Aguilar’s moving ‘Confession’ and his three-hander ‘Welcome to the Bottom’ with Dawan and Jones raise the roof.
Importance of collaboration… David H. Bell and I discussed the ROCKNE project in a wide-ranging 2016 podcast CONVERSATION about AMTP's outreach in Edinburgh, the annual student-produced Waa Mu Show and the importance of collaboration between career professionals and undergraduates in new work development. You will find no better example of Bell's vision and this collaboration than Something in the Game.
SOMETHING IN THE GAME
An All-American Musical
Book by Buddy Farmer
Music by Michael Mahler
Lyrics by David H. Bell & Michael Mahler
Directed by David H. Bell
through August 5th
Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts
Josephine Louis Theater
American Music Theatre Project (AMTP) at Northwestern University and the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts present the Chicago premiere of “Something in the Game: An All-American Musical,” produced by special arrangement with Coaches, LLC, John Girardi and Greg Schaffert.
2016 CONVERSATION with David H. Bell
For more reviews, visit: Theatre In Chicago