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By Peter Filichia
"Rewriting an old musical's book for modern audiences." It's a line that sends shivers down the spines of most musical theater enthusiasts who'd like to see a 1927 musical done as it was in 1927. Or at least they think they do.

A good rebuttal is the book that Mark Madama and Wayne Bryan provided in 1992 for the vintage hit Good News! Bryan, producing director of Music Theatre of Wichita, and Madama, who just staged a new production of the show there, did a remarkable job of getting an audience to care about the kids -- and adults -- who populate the mythical Tait College.

The big event on campus is Tait's playing Colton for the football championship. Tait was certain to win with Tom Marlowe at the helm -- until he flunked his astronomy final. Now he won't be allowed to play. Tom's girlfriend Pat Bingham (as in the Bingham Library that dominates the college) announces at a pep rally that her father will donate a good deal of money if Tait wins, but later confides she's more worried about the school colors. "Red and gray and Pat don't go together," she says, fully expecting Tom to do something about it. As president of Pi Beta Phi, Pat feels she must be stunningly dressed, for, she insists, being First Lady of Tait means more than being First Lady of the U.S. "No one cares what Mrs. Coolidge wears," she says in all seriousness. "Her husband is only on the radio."

The students organize a protest march against Charlotte Kenyon, the astronomy professor who's just returned to the school where she was once a student. Marching, too, under a sign that says "Football over Astronmy" (sic), is Coach Johnson (the ruggedly male Hal Davis), who once dated her. (Just the way that actress Linda Michele, playing Kenyon, imbues the word "Coach" with such feeling, you know she still cares.)

Years ago, though, Kenyon and Johnson concentrated on their careers instead of love, and now each rather regrets it. But that doesn't mean that Kenyon will suddenly turn pro-football. When Johnson demands that she give Tom a break, she responds, "I'm ensuring his future," with the dead earnestness of a good teacher who feels the responsibility of preparing a student for real life. Still, she does yield in allowing Tom to take a make-up test. That strikes both the coach and the protesters as fair, and Johnson seems to have won this battle. But Madama and Bryan are smarter than that. They then have Tom enter and tell the coach that he has good news: Kenyon told him earlier that afternoon that he could take a make-up. The coach hasn't influenced her after all.

Of course, Pooch, Tait's trainer (the superb Justin Robertson), brings up the excellent point that "Tom passes footballs, not astronomy tests." What good is a make-up that he'll only fail again? The kids assume that Pat will tutor him, because she has great grades in astronomy. That's another nice Madama-Bryan touch; usually the girls we're not inclined to like are made out to be stupid. Not this lady, though she does have questionable priorities. She won't tutor Tom because tonight her sorority is choosing new drapes, and she's just got to be there, for if the girls pick incorrectly, it'll reflect badly on her administration.

So Pat gets cousin Connie -- a poor relation who's a Lane, not a Bingham -- to do the tutoring. The lass is unenthusiastic, for she assumes that Tom's a dumb jock. She wants a man who's "kind, sensitive, and supportive" and not a football player (unaware that Tom is going to meet every one of her requirements). She starts tutoring, and after she points out the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, she senses, "You haven't heard a word I've said, have you?" In lesser librettos, the kid admits he hasn't and starts putting the moves on the girl. But Madama and Bryan have Tom earnestly say, "Yes, I have. Big Dipper. Little Dipper." He goes on to deliver a beautifully written speech in which he says he took astronomy because he liked looking at the stars when he was a kid; what's more, his father, an avid fisherman, told him that the position of the stars suggested a great deal on how the fish were biting. No, this Tom is not to be confused with Beauty and the Beast's Gaston, and Chris Peluso, who looks as if he's just stepped out of an Arrow shirt-collar ad, says his lines with the ultimate sincerity.

Tom does get around to telling Connie that "Pat's a wonderful girlfriend, even though we don't have much in common," before admitting something we wouldn't expect: "Is it wrong for a guy to be practical?" He's at Tait on an athletic scholarship, and he knows how much easier his life will be if he marries well. Again, Peluso is impressive in not having the boy come across as a rank gold-digger, but just a realist who takes money into the equation. Still, Connie is more intrigued with him than she expected and, after Tom picks up her astronomy book, she picks up his football.

Peluso and Julie Hanson are marvelous in the way they telegraph to each other that they know they've connected.

As they walk upstage with their backs to us, Tom, with his left hand, points out a star on the horizon -- only so that he can get his arm around her shoulder. But then at the last second he lets that arm fall by his side. He knows that Connie is a "nice" girl and he's going to treat her as such. As Jack Nicholson felt about Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets, she makes him want to be a better man.

Tom invites Connie to the game, where she'll sit next to Pat. Connie suggests that Pat won't much like this, but Tom staunchly says, "Oh, she'll understand." (Madama and Bryan's Tom always expects the best of people). If Tom is swaying towards Connie, Pat will take care of that: She announces to him (and everyone else at the next pep rally) that if Tom scores the winning touchdown, her dad will double his contribution to the school -- "in the name of Tom and Pat Marlowe." So, as the first act ends, Tom reluctantly goes off with the woman who's appointed herself his fiancée. Connie's bereft.

Act Two begins with Pat preparing an afternoon tea at Pi Beta Phi -- which means overseeing Connie's putting out the food. When Tom arrives, Connie is short with him because he didn't tell her he was engaged. He lets her know that it was a surprise to him, too, and he's going to tell Pat that he won't marry her. Easier said than done; when Pat comes out, she constantly interrupts his attempts to set her straight. (Kristen Williams is excellent in showing that Pat is unaware how insulting she is. She's not a bad person, just a thoughtless one.) Pat says that if Tom wins the game her father will set up a scholarship, and Madama and Bryan wisely have Tom think of all the kids like him who can't afford college who'll now be able to go.

Well, of course it all works out -- but not quite in the way you might think. Tait wins, but Tom is not the hero -- so Pat matter-of-factly drops him, leaving the field clear for him and Connie. As the pair walks upstage with their backs to us as they did before, Tom again lifts his left hand to point out a star on the horizon -- but this time puts that arm around Connie's shoulder. It's fine; now he's earned the right to do it.

And who is the football hero? Bobby Randall (the winning Stanley E. Bahorek) -- even though he's been a benchwarmer for four years. Just as every backstage story gives the understudy the chance to succeed, so too does this football story. Up till now, his life has been pretty chaotic -- for he's been chased by Babe O'Day (the fetching Annie Ramsey) to both his delight and fear. For Babe has just broken up with football star Beef Saunders (the perfectly Neanderthalish Jarl -- yes, Jarl -- Moreland). The spurned guy can't accept it, and Bobby is chicken when Beef's around. But Babe mothers him very well, especially when she urges him to "Button Up Your Overcoat."

Choreographer Linda Goodrich makes the most of his coat. She has Bobby take it off and put it on Babe -- backwards, so he can tie the sleeves behind her and make it into a straitjacket to indicate what a crazy lady this is. Then, on the lyric "Beware of frozen ponds," he spreads it on ground as Sir Walter Raleigh did for Queen Elizabeth. Finally, she has Bobby use it as a matador's cape to fend off Babe. Nice ideas all.

Goodrich also carefully choreographs the jocks' workout session. The 1974 revival used a slo-mo sequence, but here the dozens of young men do the frenetic calisthenics for real: Push-ups, rope-jumping, and a quick sprint through an automobile tire obstacle course. (Is it dancing? Well, the word I think I'd use is athletic. But it's sure entertaining.)

Oh, and need I add that the coach and the professor get together, too? Madama and Bryan give some clever reasons why they didn't years ago, but all is rectified by the final curtain. What's more, both teachers do well in helping the younger generation reach their goals.

Interesting that the show opens with the students telling how at Tait they're "learning every day," for Madama's cast of young 'uns is doing just that. Hanson, Ramsey, and Bahorek are Equity (and so are Michele and Davis), but none of the other 35 -- yes, 35 -- kids are. How director Madama got them to deliver such a slick and polished production in a mere 10 days of rehearsal is beyond me. And if that isn't enough, Justin Robertson (Pooch) spent his so-called "free time" doing a detailed caricature of the cast in which he drew each and every one of the cast members after borrowing their headshots from Madama. You've got to see his work, available on www.squigsink.com -- as well as his right-on caricature of Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. And given Robertson's pin-point perfect timing as Pooch, I won't be surprised if he's just as big a star as she is some day.