Rube Goldberg became a household name — and a dictionary entry — with his cartoon inventions, zany mechanical contrivances that went to absurd extremes to do simple tasks. He also earned a Pulitzer Prize as a political cartoonist.
Whether he’ll become a familiar theatrical character still is problematical, but “Young Rube” shows brightness in its world premiere production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
The show, with book by John Pielmeier (“Agnes of God”) and music and lyrics by Matthew Selman, is based on a play by the cartoonist’s son, George W. George, and deals with Goldberg’s boyhood in San Francisco and his break from an autocratic father who wanted him to be a mining engineer.
Pielmeier’s comic touch sparkles, and Selman’s score has the charm of old-fashioned musical theater, with tunes that range through jazz, ballads, congas and other touches that musicals used to have.
Marcus Neville is bright in the title role, dealing with a variety of cartoon characters that he brings to life but cannot always control. Mana Allen delights as Tillie, his cartoon Muse, and Bill Bowers is fun as Boob McNutt, Rube’s friend and alter ego. Steve Liebman, as Liberty Undaunted and several other characters, brings style and humor to all of them.
All goes well until the middle of the second act, when the tone changes and the humor departs. A couple of ill-fitting songs bring the action to a dead stop , and director Susan Gregg lacks sufficient time to bring things up to speed again.
But songs like “Brush Strokes,””Copy Boys,””Have a Cigar” and “Mixing Metaphors” are humorous and impressive, with the last a dazzling display of wordplay. Technical work is outstanding, with John Ezell’s set replicating the Goldberg machinery style and Dorothy L. Marshall’s costumes a reminder of how much fun black-and-white can be.
Even the program notes are written in Goldberg style, and there is promise in the premise, but there needs further definition of some of the characters, and the second act needs a new focus.