Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Musical Shavings

Fry and Kudisch in A Minister's Wife (photo by Paul Kolnik)

A Minister’s Wife

Adapted by Austin Pendleton, from Bernard Shaw’s Candida
Lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen, music by Joshua Schmidt
Conceived and directed by Michael Halberstam
Starring Liz Baltes, Kate Fry, Drew Gehling, Marc Kudisch, Bobby Steggert

Performances through June 12, 2011
Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY

There’s already a classic musical based on a Shaw play—My Fair Lady, of course, from Pygmalion—but can lightning strike twice? Based on A Minister’s Wife, the answer is no. Despite a talented pedigree, this frustratingly bland chamber musical only reminds us how much richer is Shaw’s original, Candida, unencumbered by characters continuously breaking into song, which only breaks up the piercing wit and logic of Shaw’s ever-relevant arguments about men, women, politics, religion and society.

Another of Shaw’s serious comedies, Candida takes the pulse of a marriage between the socialist Reverend Morrell and his free-spirited wife Candida. That he takes her for granted is noticed by immature young poet Eugene Marchbanks, who cannot fathom why she would stay in what strikes him as a lopsided relationship. When Marchbanks tells Morrell that he and Candida are in love, the reverend decides to test both of them: will Candida choose familiar comfort (Morrell) or youthful passion (Marchbanks)?

The skeleton of Shaw’s compassionate character dissection remains in A Minister’s Wife, but Joshua Schmidt’s pleasant but unhummable songs intrude too often on Austin Pendleton’s adaptation. Occasionally, the music elaborates on Shaw’s insights (“Enchantment” springs to mind), but mostly it replaces Shaw’s sparkling dialogue with rote tunes and Jan Levy Tranen’s pedestrian lyrics, an unfortunate trade-off.

Michael Halberstam’s estimable staging, which helps this 90-minute long chamber-music riff pass by uneventfully (if uninspiredly), comprises Allen Moyle’s cluttered set, Keith Parham’s suggestive lighting and David Zinn’s exacting costumes. The quartet of musicians—violinist Pasquale Laurino, cellist Laura Bontrager, clarinetist Jonathan Levine and pianist Timothy Splain, who also conducts—performs behind a scrim, an elegantly subtle touch.

The excellent acting quintet is led by Marc Kudisch, who compensates for a wavering British accent with a powerful baritone that gives Morrell an advantage over the honeyed tenor of Bobby Steggert, who comes off even younger than the 18-year-old Shaw asks for. Kate Fry’s charming and sweet-voiced Candida rounds out the main trio, while the smaller roles of Reverend Mill and Morrell’s assistant Prosperine are capably taken by Drew Gehling and Liz Baltes. Candida’s father, who provides a necessary sounding board in Candida, has been excised from A Minister’s Wife, another regrettable misstep.

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