The 1920s was a heady and busy time for American musical theater. Musicals were still a relatively new art form, and the rules for creating them were only just emerging. That didn't stop composers, writers and lyricists from pounding out show after show, in numbers that we are unlikely to see again. The 1927 to 1928 season saw 51 new musicals. Of course, most of them were forgettable and have since been forgotten, but one of those shows was Show Boat, which represented a turning point in the pursuit of quality craftsmanship in musical theater.
Also from that record-breaking season was Good News (music by Ray Henderson, lyrics by B.G. "Buddy" DeSylva and Lew Brown, book by DeSylva and Laurence Schwab), another of the few musicals from the 1920s to establish anything close to a lasting legacy. Good News is perhaps the quintessential example of a significant 1920s subgenre: the collegiate romp. (Two other subgenres were the Cinderella story, exemplified by Sunny and Irene, and the bootleg show, best embodied by Oh, Kay.) Good News made playful fun of the fact that colleges in the 1920s were, to a large extent, just four-year country clubs. This was, of course, just an extension of the dissolute, hedonistic lifestyle of the moneyed set in the '20s.
Of the handful of 1920s shows that have survived, few if any are performed in their original form. Even Show Boat has no official version, and seems to get rewritten and revised for every production. For its current production of Good News, the venerable Goodspeed Opera House has enlisted Jeremy Desmon (The Girl in the Frame, Pump Up The Volume) to provide a revised libretto, and the result is fizzy and fun, if at times anachronistic, at least with respect to conversational idiom. Desmon adds some snappy touches of his own, while on the whole staying true to the feel of the '20s musical: frothy and frivolous.
Good News relates the classic tale of the college quarterback who needs to pass an important astronomy exam so that he can lead his team to victory in the big game on Saturday. Local female brainiac agrees to tutor the quarterback, and the two predictably fall in love. (The 1947 film "Good News" maintains this basic plot, but is considerably rewritten.)
The original score to Good News included the hit songs "The Varsity Drag" and "The Best Things in Life Are Free." As often happens with revivals of shows from this period, the Goodspeed production includes interpolations from the rest of the Henderson/DeSylva/Brown songbook, including "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," "Button Up Your Overcoat," "You're the Cream in My Coffee" and "Keep Your Sunny Side Up." The reason it's so easy to do this is that songs from the period weren't necessarily written to be contextual within the framework of a show. They were written to be hits, and the above-listed songs without question became hits.
The Goodspeed production is directed and choreographed by Vince Pesce, and Pesce's joyous dance is one of the highlights of the show. The numbers are brisk, varied, and lively. Pesce really knows how to dress a stage and create engaging, often charming dance numbers. So, the dance is strong. Would that the same could be said for his direction, particularly in terms of the abundant comedy in the show. Pesce keeps things moving at a fast clip, and the transitions between scenes and numbers were fast and efficient. But somehow that sense of sharpness escapes Pesce when creating comic business for a scene or guiding his cast members toward an effectively timed punchline.
The cast members themselves are almost universally top-notch, including Ross Lekites as quarterback Tom Marlowe and the lovely Chelsea Morgan Stock as braniac Connie Lane. Also worth mentioning are the protean Barry Shafrin as Bobby Randall, the prototypical 98-lb. weakling, and the animated Tessa Faye as Babe O'Day, the campus sexpot. This Good News makes the astronomy professor a female, and even gives her a love interest in the football coach. Beth Glover as the professor and Mark Zimmerman as the coach make for a delightfully humorous and charming older couple.
Good News runs at the Goodspeed through June 22nd. We don't often get the chance to see this show, and even if you're not in the immediate area, it might just be worth the trip. They don't make 'em like that anymore, and yes there are good reasons for that. But every once in a while it's nice to just turn off your mind, turn on your heart, and enjoy a lovingly crafted throwback to a bygone era.