By Barry Reszel
“I really, truly want to ‘Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame’ tonight,” thought I, working hard to keep myself from throwing up in my throat a little.
Truth is, growing up Catholic in Chicago’s western suburbs of the ’60s and ’70s, The Fightin’ Irish were figuratively shoved down said throat at every corner.
The Golden Dome.
Good Notre Dame football is good for college football.
Wake the Echoes.
Every game televised.
Catholics vs. Convicts.
The arrogance was more than this altar boy could take.
Former ND Football coach Dan Devine once said, “There are two kinds of people in the world, Notre Dame lovers and Notre Dame haters. And, quite frankly, they’re both a pain in the ass.” With apologies to a handful of good friends who call Notre Dame their alma mater or pseudo alma mater (the ladies of SMC), put me squarely in that latter category.
And so it was with this baggage I headed in to see the reworked “all-American musical,” Something in the Game, an Equity show being superbly staged this summer by American Music Theatre Project and the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts at Northwestern’s Josephine Louis Theatre.
It’s a tad ironic this show about Notre Dame football legends Knute Rockne and George (“Win one for the Gipper”) Gipp is looking for street cred in the shadows of Northwestern’s $270 million Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center, a facility bringing legitimate credibility to Wildcat football.
Indeed the relationship between legendary coach Rockne (read his story here) and star player Gipp (more about him here) is a fine exploration to undertake. In fact, the 1940 film, Knute Rockne, All American, did just that with Pat O’Brien portraying Rockne and Ronald Reagan, Gipp. (Read more about the film here.)
And God knows the American musical theatre canon could surely benefit from a terrific, new, sports-themed musical. (Damn Yankees is pretty much it. Rocky flopped. Chess doesn’t count.) But if Something in the Game is to become that, there is more work to be done.
To be sure, the necessary work is not in the music. Genius local Composer Michael Mahler ‘s heavily anthemic and ballad-laden score is the unquestioned high point of the performance.
The voices of Stef Tovar (Rockne), Dara Cameron (Rockne’s wife, Bonnie), Adrian Aguilar (Gipp), James Earl Jones (illicit bar owner Jimmy the Goat), Rashada Dawan (Jimmy’s sidekick, Thelma) and a supporting cast of 18 mostly young singers and hoofers do Mahler’s work (along with that of co-lyricist David H. Bell) proud.
The song cycle “A Cedar Point Summer” featuring a mashup of “Under the Golden Dome,” “Completing the Forward Pass” and “Never Saw it Coming” intriguingly works to tie multiple story threads together early in act one. The title song; gorgeous ballads “Reach High,” “Father and Son” and “If There Had Been Roses;” and the showstopping “The Shift” are all personal highlights. The latter particularly shows off Dawan’s exceptional voice and Director/Choreographer Bell’s wonderful choreography, expertly performed.
So too are the technical elements—Alan Schwanke‘s functional, representational set; Robert S. Kuhn‘s period-perfect costumes; Jesse Klug‘s lighting; Christopher Kirtz‘s sound; and Ryan T. Nelson‘s music direction—professionally top-notch.
The work necessary to turn Something in the Game into a legendary piece of musical theatre needs to be done by a capable dramaturg who’s not as emotionally tied to the script as its author, Buddy Farmer. That’s because the story (more accurately, stories) unfolding in Something in the Game‘s current iteration fail to give audiences of all musical theatre (especially one tied to sport) what they desperately need—someone to cheer for.
There are just too many threads leading to too many themes: Knute and his dad, Knute and Bonnie’s marriage, Knute’s parenting, Knute’s “slow” son, Gipp’s talent, Gipp’s carousing and gambling, Gipp as a Knute’s surrogate son to the detriment of his own child… you get the idea…that none of them are satisfyingly enough explored and resolved.
In a perfect example of potential decisions ahead for this scriptwriter and his worthy assistant, I’d encourage consideration of the scene around the title song, “There’s Something in the Game.” In it, a group of World War I veterans, just returned from combat, joins the ND football team, and the cast sings about the majesty of football. Presumably the veterans help establish the 1920-ish timeframe, but they are never again discussed and, truly, the gorgeous song is rendered a bit preposterous being sung to and by young men who just experienced the horrors of war.
There are other examples. And no doubt this summer’s reworked version (an original under the title Knute Rockne All American was staged 10 years ago at Theatre at the Center) has tightened the original script. That’s why the call here is for Farmer to employ capable assistance.
He is likely (rightly) protective of his writing; but the intimate closeness means Farmer probably cannot make the changes (including heart-wrenching cuts) necessary to bring sorely needed focus. The legendary script this could become zeroes in on a more limited number of conflicts while shining a hero’s or heroine’s spotlight on a single chosen character (I’d explore Bonnie).
If and when that happens, I’ll gladly join in the closing number and “Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame” without my gag reflex kicking in.
American Music Theatre Project and the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts present “There’s Something in the Game” through August 5 at Northwestern’s Josephine Louis Theatre, 20 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. More information and tickets are available here.