Two worlds collide as musical theatre tackles one of the greatest football coaching legends of all time. The world premiere of Knute Rockne-All American
is now on stage at Theatre at the Centre and with a lot of heart and phenomenal score by Michael Mahler, this work in progress is destined for great success.
For those who don't know the history of the most famous coach of Notre Dame, Knute became known for his ingenuity (inventing the forward pass), compassion, ethical conduct and was a mentor and father figure for the football team. As his fame grew, Rockne had to balance fame with a complex family life. The story was immortalized on film with Pat O'Brien as Knute and a pre-political Ronald Regan as the doomed George Gipp.
Patti LuPone said it best that hell on earth can be trying out a new musical (describing her experience in A Baker's Wife
). Watching the devastation that was The Pirate Queen
that premiered in Chicago in 2006 certainly proves that point. With Knute Rockne
, all the basics are more than intact. With a superior cast, headed by a heartwarming and honest performance by Stef Tovar and the much underused Kate Fry, this tale of father-son relationships has the ability of becoming the defining sports musical biography.
So with all the praise comes some criticism. The book by Buddy Farmer needs to get a clearer focus on the story as the musical goes a bit off course and spends too much time on the Gipp (the play could very easily be called George Gipp-All American
at this point). The creators and director have a rising star in Brandon Dahlquist and his performance is worth the price of admission. However, the other relationships are just as, if not more important than Gipp and Rockne. For example the construct of emotions with his wife Bonnie, are never fully brought to fruition. It would be an interesting turn to have a song from Ms. Fry describing how she feels about the father-son relationship she is watching being formed with Rockne and Gipp while his own children (one who is mentally slow) are suffering from his absence. Gipp's death scene and ballad are also in need of some reworking as at some points it looked like Dahlquist was going to break into an Irish jig while singing his death knell "Confession". The musical would also be a bit more relevant and heart tugging if Rockne's death was either foreshadowed (ala Will Rogers Follies
) or at least mentioned at the end of the piece, as it was with his plane crash at such an early age that changed the way planes were constructed.
Now for the good, and the good most assuredly wins out. As Rockne, Mr. Tovar has the natural ability and stage presence to make the audience instantly respect his character, making his portrayal of Knute all the more real. Also of note was the erstwhile Geoff Rice as Rockne's best friend and confidant Gus Dorais who knows Knute better than anyone, even his own wife. Chicago theatre staple Dennis Kelly is perfect as always in his patronly roles as Father to both Knute and God.
You can't have a musical with football as its backdrop without the boys in leatherheads. David H. Bell, who is a triple threat as he serves as director, choreographer and lyricist, has assembled an athletic and sensational ensemble that make the dance moves masculine yet sexy . Of the entire male chorus Matt Raftery (associate choreographer ) is the standout on stage and has incredible presence and dance skills. Jesse Klug's lighting design is spectacularly Brechtian and sets the mood perfectly for every scene, especially those of the football games. Valerie Maze's musical direction is also spot-on, especially with the choral numbers. As far as a score goes, Mahler and Bell could easily take this premier into the recording studio with the current cast and the result would be one of the most exciting new works in a very long time.
Knute Rockne-All American
runs through May 11, 2008 at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana. For tickets and show times please visit www.theatreatthecenter.org
or call the box office at (219) 836-3255.