Something in The Game review- Northwestern’s musical about Knute Rockne is a delight

James Earl Jones II as Jimmy the Goat and Rashada Dawan as Thelma in "Something in the Game"

American Music Theatre Project & Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts at Northwestern University are currently presenting SOMETHING IN THE GAME: AN ALL-AMERICAN MUSICAL through August 5, 2018, at the Josephine Louis Theater, 20 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus.

 With book by Buddy Farmer, music by Michael Mahler, lyrics by David H. Bell and Michael Mahler, the play is directed and choreographed by David H. Bell and produced by special arrangement with Coaches, LLC, John Girardi, and Greg Schaffert. The premier musical features a cast of 24 actors, both professionals and Northwestern students, to bring the story of legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne to life with terrific sets and costumes, and irresistible musical numbers.

James Rank, Stef Tovar, Neal Davidson, Charlie Herman, and Dara Cameron in “Something in the Game”

Along with the Northwestern theatre department alum/students, and ensemble members who played the football team and the chorus girls, the musical’s cast included veteran actors Stef Tovar as Knute Rockne, Adrian Aguilar as George Gipp, Dara Cameron as Bonnie Rockne, James Rank as Father Walsh, President of the University, and Brandon Springman as Coach Harper and others. Kudos to young Charlie Herman, already a trouper, who played Billy Rockne. All the singing was first rate, but Rashada Dawan as Thelma and James Earl Jones II blew the roof off the theater!

The show gives us a picture of the life of the superstar coach from his desire to enter college at Notre Dame until just before his untimely death in a plane crash, emphasizing his prioritizing the team over family. His relationships with roommate, quarterback Gus Dorais, when he was a student, with Coach Jesse Harper, whose job he succeeded to, and his subsequent deep involvement with troubled player George Gipp, are all important parts of the story, as are the efforts of President Father Walsh to control and guide him. Rockne is portrayed as very much a “man’s man”, when perhaps he should’ve been more of a special-needs boy’s dad and a husband.

The Fighting Irish, Stef Tovar as Knute Rockne, and Adrian Aguilar as George Gipp

There can be no question that, under Rockne’s tutelage, Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” skyrocketed to national prominence; a number of his training innovations are showcased in the musical very cleverly as scenes or dance numbers. For instance, Rockne believed that half of football strategy was passing, and worked hard even as a player, before he was a coach, and especially after to develop this underutilized skill.

Also, famously Inspired by the precision and timing of a chorus line, Rockne added the Notre Dame shift to his playbook; the full-out dance scene with players and “dance-hall girls” in the second half of the musical was an all-out gem of staging and performance.

Rockne was the first football coach to take his team around the U.S. and initiate intersectional rivalries; the musical uses such an “escape tour” from Notre Dame to introduce the famous speech about “The Gipper”, here taken out of context, but quite effective. Actually, Knute Rockne gave his “Win One for the Gipper” speech to the Notre Dame players at halftime of the 1928 game against Army. Rockne was trying to come back from his worst season as a coach at Notre Dame. To inspire his team, he told them a story about the tragic death of “the greatest player ever at ND”, George Gipp. Historians now believe that it is unlikely that Rockne’s version of Gipp’s last words was correct; nonetheless, Notre Dame did win the game against Army.

The cast of “Something in the Game” performing “The Shift”

The musical is beautifully directed and choreographed in myriad ways: the football scrimmages, bar fight scenes, dance numbers are an absolute delight, as are the songs. From a theater department that brought us Ann-Margret, Warren Beatty, Marg Helgenberger, Charlton Heston and too many other great actors to list, it should be no surprise that this was a student-driven production second to none you are likely to see on any campus.

 

“Something in the Game” runs July 20 to Aug. 5 at the Josephine Louis Theatre, 20 Arts Circle Drive. Tickets available at Wirtz, Northwestern website or by phone at 847-491-7282.

 

All photos by Justin Barbin

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