Sunday, May 1, 2011

theatre review- A MINISTER'S WIFE - Off Broadway April 30

George Bernard Shaw's 1894 play Candida, about a young poet who comes between a progressive-minded clergyman and his wife, has been musicalized into the five character chamber musical A Minister's Wife.  It opens Off Broadway at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse theatre one week from today and we saw it yesterday.

With a classic romantic triangle at the center and taking place all within one day, A Minister's Wife would appear to be the perfect basis for a traditional musical.  But the creators have decided to not go the traditional musical route where there are big songs or ballads with moments for applause after each number.  Instead, the score by composer Josh Schmidt and lyricist Jan Tranen feeds off of and into the dialogue with starts and stops along the way.

Fry with Kudisch in the background
This 90 minute piece, with a book by Austin Pendelton, combines elements of sermons, debate, poetry and love letters as well as Shaw's dialogue from his play into the dialogue and lyrics of the show.  At first it seems to be a trifle of a show as the first 30 minutes concerns itself with the whirlwind of activity behind Candida's return home from London and the sermon that her husband, the Rev. James Morrell is to give that night as his assistant and his typist, who are both enamored by him, look on.   I think the style of the score works here - as the disjointed music is in sync with the thinking of Rev. Morrell as he prepares his ideas for that night's sermon while at the same time thinking about his wife's return.  However, I think the disjointed style also turned some of my fellow theatregoers off and made it harder for them to reconnect with the show later once the plot was moving forward and the score was more in the traditional sense.  This is too bad as looking back I think this show is one that has a lot going for it but just needs a little more focus in the beginning to make it truly soar.

Kudisch and Steggert
I loved how the main characters were all fleshed out and distinct.  I especially liked the character of Marchbanks.  He becomes enamored with the charms of Candida, who he believes is being mistreated by her husband by being "kept in the kitchen" in what he believes is their complacent marriage. Marchbanks sees her as his way to find himself.  

The cast is excellent.  Marc Kudisch is Morrell, Kate Fry is Candida and Bobby Steggert is Marchbanks, the poet trying to find his place in the world.  Kudish is perfect as a Reverend, he has the stature, the voice and the presence to stir parishioners.  He is a natural leader, always knowing where he is going but when he starts to think that perhaps his wife loves someone else he becomes lost as well.  Fry is the only character that always knows what she is thinking and feeling and has the qualities of what you'd think a minister's wife would have.  She is beautiful, gracious but challenges her husband, and later Marchbanks into being the men they truly are.   Steggert once again perfectly plays the young lost man who becomes enamored with another man's woman - just like he did as "Brother" in the Ragtime revival.  He has an honesty and an urgency in his delivery and how he connects to the material.  All three sing beautifully as well- I just wish they had more moments to sing together as they truly only came together at the very end.  Liz Baltes and Drew Gehling complete the cast as his typist and assistant and they both add a nice bit of humor to the show and are good in their roles.

Kudisch with Liz Baltes and Drew Gehling
As I mentioned above, I thought the last third of the show more effectively used the songs to tell the story, as they were more stand alone numbers with the lyrics tied into the emotional thoughts of the characters.  Or, it could also be I enjoyed the last 30 minutes more since that is when the tension in the show builds and our three main characters are forced with the reality of the decision that Candida must make.  That ending, when Candida is forced to choose between the two men and how she gets to her decision, is pretty special.

I also enjoyed the themes the show brings up of what makes a marriage, the idea of trust and the question as to what does "love, honor and obey" actually mean?

We actually saw Fry previously in a musical version of another Shaw play - My Fair Lady - in the small scale version that is performed with only two pianos - at the McCarter Theatre.  She was Eliza and Michael Cumpsty was Henry Higgins.  She was great in that as well (as was Cumpsty.)

Official Show Site

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