A Minister’s Wife Review
What does a woman want? What does a marriage mean? Is Socialism the answer? Was “My Fair Lady” a fluke?
These are the questions raised by “A Minister’s Wife,” a musical adapted from one of George Bernard Shaw’s 60 other plays, “Candida,” and now opened at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
Shaw’s 19th century comedy focused on a high-minded love triangle between a Christian Socialist minister much in demand on the lecture circuit, his lovely strong-willed wife, and an idealistic young poet.
Austin Pendleton has written a book that uses much of Shaw’s dialogue from “Candida,” but streamlines the playwright’s three acts into a swift 95 minutes without intermission, including 20 songs composed by Joshua Schmidt (best known for his much-praised musical “Adding Machine”) with lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen.
Some of the songs are sweet and melodic, especially those sung by Bobby Steggert as the boyish poet, in another of his charming performances as an amusingly earnest and impulsive young man (e.g. “The Grand Manner” at the same theater). Here he proclaims his love for Candida to her husband, although he is simply misinterpreting her kindness. The Broadway veteran Marc Kudisch (9 to 5, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Assassins, etc.) plays the upright minister who starts to question whether his wife actually loves him — and is clueless about his own pomposity…and his own need. Kate Fry, a newcomer to New York theater, credibly though not enchantingly reprises the role of Candida that she originated when this musical was first performed in Chicago in 2009, conceived and directed by Michael Halberstam, the artistic director and co-founder of that city’s Writers’ Theatre. Candida has a lesson to teach both men. A subplot is added to the original involving the two remaining members of the cast, Liz Baltes and Drew Gehling as members of the minister’s entourage who begin as adversaries — and since this a comedy, I don’t have to tell you where they end up.
The music is meant to soften and warm Shaw’s coolly intellectual play. But, no, this is not “My Fair Lady II.” This is not because Tranen and Schmidt are no Lerner and Loewe (who adapted Shaw’s “Pygmalion”), although the songs are not as memorable. “Candida” was a period play whose characters were created to score points about issues of the day. The Victorian-era arguments about the cluelessness of men and the deeper wisdow of women no longer seem fresh presented so pedantically on the stage. Yes, the adaptation makes some changes; Candida’s father, the unrepentant capitalist, is no longer a character on the stage; he is only alluded to, the effect of which is to cut out much of the politics. But, despite the addition of some tuneful music and fine performances, “A Minister’s Wife” is still stuck with the characters from “Candida” and their arguments. There seems little reason to make a musical out of it, and if “A Minister’s Wife” has its charming moments, it is not thrilling. Like Candida with the young poet, you can enjoy the time spent, even love it a little, but it won’t be your favorite.
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A Minister’s Wife
at Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
Book by Austin Pendleton, music by Joshua Schmidt, lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen
Based on the play Candida by Geroge Bernard Shaw
Conceived and directed by Michael Halberstam
Sets by Allen Moyer, costumes by David Zinn, lighting by Keith Parham, sound by Scott Stauffer, orechestrations by Joshua Schmidt, music supervision by Richard Carsey
Cast: Liz Baltes , Kate Fry , Drew Gehling , Marc Kudisch , Bobby Steggert
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