Published May 07. 2013 4:00AM
It's amazing to think that the musical "Good News!" opened on Broadway in 1927, just a couple of months before that little game-changer known as "Show Boat." Because, really, other than the year of their debut, they have little in common.
While "Show Boat" brought a new depth and complexity to the American musical, "Good News!" hewed to the older tradition: inconsequential plot, cheery songs, kicky choreography. It made audiences at the time very happy and became the fifth-longest-running show of the 1920s.
Over time, though, the script began to feel dated. New eras came, as did new expectations of what a stage show could and should be.
So when Goodspeed Musicals decided to revive "Good News!" as the opening show for the theater's 50th season, it did what it has done well before. It brought in someone to revise the script.
Writer Jeremy Desmon has accomplished what he set out to do: keep the spirit of the original but make it work better for modern audiences.
The story remains as it was in the original by Laurence Schwab, Frank Mandel and B.G. DeSylva: a college football star is in danger of failing a class - and, egads, in danger of becoming ineligible to play in The Big Game. Enter a female tutor. Think she helps him with some learnin'? Think he finds her more attractive as they spend more time together? Think it'll all end with a big, bright song? Do you know your musical-comedy conventions or what?
Desmon has added some sharper jokes and has strenghtened characterizations. He has dropped a scene here and added bits there. He finessed some plot points that haven't aged well - freshmen being hazed by upperclassmen, coeds striving to get their MRS degrees - as best he could.
Through it all, he has made sure this is still very much a feel-good enterprise.
It doesn't hurt that the songs are a compendium of chipper tunes by DeSylva, Ray Henderson and Lew Brown: "Life is Just A Bowl of Cherries," "Keep Your Sunny Side Up," "The Best Things in Life Are Free," "You're the Cream in My Coffee" and "The Varsity Drag."
Vince Pesce, who also choreographed and directed "Something's Afoot" last fall at Goodspeed, doubles up again for "Good News!"
The choreography hits a high point with the super-high-energy, Charleston-infused, raise-the-rafters "Varsity Drag" number. The audience loved it so much, they were hooting and hollering and cheering.
Nice, too, is a football-game-as-choreography piece, with formations becoming dance moves and down-field runs morphing into high steps.
The dialogue scenes could use some of the same sass as the production numbers. A storyline that's this frivolous needs to staged in a fast and fizzy way. This production only achieves that at times.
The cast is smiley and fresh-faced and indefatigable. Ross Lekites, who looks like he could be Matt Damon's baby brother, possesses the requisite all-American boyishness to play Tom Marlowe, the quarterback in academic trouble. And Lekites sings like a dream. Chelsea Morgan Stock - who portrays studious tutor Connie Lane - likewise has an angelic voice, shown beautifully on her "The Best Things in Life Are Free" duet with Lekites. Her Connie is smart and quietly appealing. But the actress could infuse her performance with a little more vivacity as Connie blossoms as the storyline progresses.
Even though Tom and Connie are the show's central couple, they don't get enough scenes together to build their romance and chemistry. So when the big union happens at the end (this is a romantic comedy - I'm not really giving anything away, am I?), it feels more like a shrug than a woosh of euphoria.
Having more fun is the secondary romantic couple. Barry Shafrin is comic gold as the nerdy Bobby Randall, who spends all his football games warming the bench. That kind of role could easily become overly goofy, but Shafrin hits every scene just right. He's paired with Tessa Faye, who twitches and fidgets as good-hearted groupie Babe O'Day, never forgoing an opportunity for physical movement. All that overselling gets a bit much at times. She gives a tongue-in-cheek performance. No, really, she puts her tongue in her cheek on several occasions.
All those characters, along with the rest of the supporting cast and ensemble members, are happily 1920-ed out by costume designer Tracy Christensen. That means a bevy of drop-waist dresses for the gals and sweater vests for the guys. Oh, and leather helmets for the football players - go, team!