Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Minister's Wife

Lincoln Center Theater presents an odd delight based on George Bernard Shaw’s Candida called A Minister’s Wife. Shaw’s play first appeared in New York in 1903, produced as a special matinee by Arnold Daily who played Marchbanks opposite Dorothy Donnelly as Candida. The reception was so good that additional matinees were added. According to Gerald Bordman in his Oxford Companion to American Theatre, good word of mouth primarily lead to a full run of four months in spite of the critics who largely ignored the play. The love story element has kept the play eternally popular as one of the most often revived of Shaw’s plays. Katherine Cornell stared in the play’s longest New York run of five months in 1924 and she returned to the role often. Some notable names playing opposite Cornell through the years were Orson Wells, Burges Meredith and Marlon Brando.

The play and musical about a woman who must choose between a young visionary and a practical socialist minister is in essence more of a love story than a political statement. In fact the political aspect adds no more than texture to the story, while the passions of love dominate and makes possible the justification for bursting into song. The only truly successful musical adaptation of a Shaw play must be considered My Fair Lady, with Oscar Straus’ The Chocolate Soldier, based on Arms and the Man, coming in a distant second. Now, here is A Minister’s Wife, which will not challenge My Fair Lady for first place, but it should take over second place, though it is a chamber musical and will most likely be produced by small theaters.

As the minister James Mavor Marell, Marc Kudish stands tall––dominating the stage by merely existing. He sings with a strong, but uninteresting voice, yet manages a nice balance between a potentially unlikeable and distant husband with a charming and friendly manner. Eternally youthful Bobby Steggert, who now at age 30 is still able to get away with playing age 20, gives the production its greatest quality of delight as Eugene Marchbanks the poet. Steggert is graced with the best music in the score, and delivers his songs with heartfelt passion. In fact, Steggert has always surged forth to an elevated level of raw, naked emotion in his performances. This is the reason he has been nominated for all the major theatre honors for his past work in 110 in the Shade, Ragtime and Yank. As the title character, Kate Fry, who hails from the Chicago theatre scene, from where this musical originated, is pleasantly durable in the role and sings with grace. She is strong and appealing, but does not imbue Candida with an underlying vulnerability that would make her truly sympathetic. Partially, this is the fault of the adaptation, for in the pairing down of Shaw’s play to accommodate musical numbers (also, the running time is only 95 minutes), some of the complexity of the character is lost. In the supporting roles, Liz Bates as Miss Prosperpine Garnett adds pep and good humor, while Drew Gehling is comically enjoyable as the nebbish Reverend Mills.

Conceived and Directed by Michael Halberstam, the show is economically staged in the three-quarter Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Allen Moyers’ simple setting lets us view the small ensemble band through an interior painted scrim. Moyers adorns the smallish space with enough books, nicknacks and select pieces of ideal furniture to make the Minister’s home look well lived in without overwhelming the actors ability to move about. David Zinn’s period costumes are rich with details easily appreciated in the small theater. Keith Parhan’s lighting, though mostly just giving illumination, adds a few haunting touches for the select moments that deserve a bit of magic.

Austin Pendleton has adapted Shaw for Joshua Schmidt’s music and Jan Levy Traven’s lyrics. The songs nicely develop right out of the dialogue, making Marchbanks truly a poet. These are Art Songs with pretty motifs and harmonies, but no discernible tunes. There is nothing here that equals the resplendent melodies found in My Fair Lady and because of that, the score will never become an honored classic or enter the cannon of fifty or so most produced titles of musical theatre. This kind of show will not be everyone’s cup of tea and might even disgruntle fans of Shaw, but on the other hand it is a sturdy, solid, well conceived work and should be able to find its own niche for future productions.

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