NEW YORK—While most plays can be musicalized regardless of their subject matter, how they’re musicalized is what’s important. In the case of A Minister’s Wife (book by Austin Pendleton, music by Joshua Schmidt, lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen), which is based on the George Bernard Shaw play Candida, things don’t fare so well.
In 1898 London, the Reverend James Morell (Marc Kudisch) is a speaker in much demand, eagerly espousing on the power of Christianity and the need for people to help one another. He carries with him a gentle air of moral superiority while going about his various tasks, such as dictating speeches to his secretary Prossy (Liz Baltes) and trying to show the young Reverend Mill (Drew Gehling) his duties.
He is totally in love with his wife Candida (Kate Fry), though she often takes a back seat to his work. She willingly accepts this situation being much in love with her husband and quite supportive of him.
On this particular day, Candida arrives from a trip with young Eugene Marchbanks (Bobby Steggert), a “nearly twenty” would-be poet the couple took in after finding him living on the streets.
Marchbanks has fallen in love with Candida and means to “free her” from her husband, as he eventually proclaims to Morell. At first the reverend ignores the younger man’s statements, but as time goes on and he sees Candida’s reactions to the eager poet, he finds himself beginning to question the security of his marriage.
Eventually Morell resolves to test his wife’s fidelity. This attempt brings the entire situation out in the open and forces Candida to take matters into her own hands.
The work retains much of the power from the original story, resulting in a chiding look at people who see themselves as a force for good, yet who don’t realize their own true strengths and weaknesses until forced to confront them head-on.
In the hands of the very capable Kudisch and Michael Halberstam’s direction, Shaw’s words are brought powerfully to life through a mixture of both comic and dramatic timing.
Unfortunately, the way the score is integrated into the story makes the entire effort feel both jarring and awkward. Less full-on songs than a mixture of singing and dialogue, their inclusion has the effect of taking one out of the immediate moment while calling attention to how incompatible the two styles seem to be.
It doesn’t help that the tunes are unmemorable. Rather than creating a completely new situation (as was done when Shaw’s “Pygmalion” was morphed into My Fair Lady), the creative team here seems too enamored of the original text to do more than tinker with it. The various actors, all of whom are blessed with good singing voices, do their best, but are basically hamstrung by the material.
150 West 65th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200, www.telecharge.com or www.lct.org
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Closes: June 12
Kudisch projects a strong presence of authority as Morell, exuding confidence in the character’s chosen work and fear when threatened with losing his main source of strength—a source Morell has never acknowledged.
Steggert makes a good Marchbanks, an idealistic dreamer filled with the ignorance and passion of youth (never clearer than when he talks about oil lamps), but also smart enough to realize there are things he doesn’t yet understand—such as why Candida married Morell in the first place.
Fry brings forth a quiet power as Candida, serving as the lynchpin of the story and embodying a woman wise beyond her years. She reminds both Morell and Marchbanks that the choices she has made in her life have not been forced upon her in the least.
Baltes works well as the officious and quite human Prossy. Gehling is okay, though not that memorable as the Reverend Mill.
Halberstam’s direction, like the work of the actors, is stymied when trying to combine the musical segments and spoken words. This is actually somewhat ironic when one considers that he both conceived and directed the project.
Allen Moyer’s set of Morrell’s study is fine. The costumes by David Zinn are nice.
It isn’t until the final moments where everything comes together and the characters finally divorced from the text are free to embrace the music full force that the resulting emotional effect is very strong. Were this the case from the beginning, “A Minister’s Wife” would definitely be something to see. Unfortunately, as it stands now, the entire effort comes up short, though the acting by the three leads is quite enjoyable.
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.