Lady’s Choice

There’s been a weird little theme this season of new musicals at major South Bay and Peninsula theaters based on 1890s British comedies by great Irish wits. First was the world premiere of Being Earnest at TheatreWorks in April, transplanting Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to swingin’ 1960s London, and now San Jose Repertory Theatre gives us the West Coast premiere of A Minister’s Wife, based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 play Candida. The musical debuted at Writers’ Theatre in 2009 in the Chicago suburb of Glencoe, conceived and directed by the company’s artistic director, Michael Halberstam. It went on to play New York’s Lincoln Center Theater in 2011, and now comes to San Jose in a new production directed by Halberstam.

Sharon Reitkerk and Tim Homsley in A Minister’s Wife. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Sharon Reitkerk and Tim Homsley in A Minister’s Wife. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Unlike TheatreWorks’ Earnest, A Minister’s Wife is still very much set in the original period. Collette Pollard’s phenomenal set captures an elegant but very much lived-in and somewhat cluttered Victorian sitting room with a realistic sense of the adjoining rooms. A chamber quartet sits in a separate room just behind the action, led by pianist and musical director Dolores Duran-Cefalu.

This version dispenses with the character of Candida’s father, the crass businessman Mr. Burgess, whose exploitation of his workers has led Reverend Morell to denounce him from the pulpit in the past. Burgess is one of the most reliable comic voices in Shaw’s play, but then A Minister’s Wife is much less of a comedy and more of a drama than Candida is. In particular the sobering ending, which in Shaw’s original is as amusingly witty as it is a serious lesson, here is played almost as high tragedy. It’s a curious reading of the source material, but the fact that it actually works that way is due to a powerful, passionate performance by Sharon Rietkerk as Candida.

The titular minister’s wife, Candida, has taken an interest in Eugene Marchbanks, a moody and useless young poet who feels very passionately about everything. Marchbanks has fallen in love with Candida, and moreover has decided that her husband, Reverend James Morell, is entirely unworthy of her, has nothing in common with her and doesn’t understand her. Unlike Marchbanks, Morell is all about being useful. A passionate Christian socialist, he spends his days giving speeches for various clubs and societies, always working for the betterment of society, and Morell thinks that’s disgraceful, pompous nonsense. Understanding to a fault, Morell feels the need to hear his self-appointed rival out, to see if he can help the young man see reason, and in so doing allows the young man’s insinuations to get into his head. Clearly they’ll just have to see which one of them deserves her. In the course of all this folly, Shaw gives us a healthy jolt of Victorian-era feminism to show us just how wrong about everything the menfolk are.

It takes a while for us to get a chance to get to know Candida in this particular version. Returning briefly from a trip to London, where their kids still are, she glides through the room but then disappears for a long time while Morell works on a sermon with his assistants and has his troubling encounter with Marchbanks—and there are songs to be sung about all of this, which keeps Candida offstage longer than she would be otherwise. The musical fleshes out the characters of Prossy Garnett, Morell’s prickly secretary, and his somewhat thick-headed but well-meaning young curate, Reverend Lexy Mill.

The libretto by Austin Pendleton hews close to the original play, borrowing occasional bits from other Shaw works such as Man and Superman. The songs aren’t exactly period-appropriate in style, but they complement the play nicely, despite the aforementioned effect of altering the overall mood. Jan Levy Tranen’s lyrics Joshua Schmidt’s music never lets you get too comfortable even with what might otherwise seem like a simple romantic song, undermining it with the eerie, unnerving squeak of a violin, for instance. David Lee Cuthbert’s habit of bringing down the lights for every song adds to the feeling of unease.

Christopher Vettel’s Morell is gently charismatic and confident, with a rich, silky baritone, and Tim Homsley’s pouty, wincing, awkward and standoffish Marchbanks makes an amusingly infuriating foil for him. Jarrod Zimmerman is a likeably well-meaning but plodding Lexy, and Liz Baltes is pricelessly acerbic as the no-nonsense Prossy, a part she originated in the musical. One of only two locals in the five-person cast (Homsley is the other), Rietkerk is a luminous Candida, playful, understanding and sharp as a tack, with a lovely voice that becomes downright stunning in her passionate climactic number.

A Minister’s Wife isn’t Candida exactly, no more than My Fair Lady is Pygmalion. The tone of it is different; the fact that people are breaking into song not lightening the mood but lending it an unexpected near-operatic gravity. But the musical captures the message, wit and characters of Shaw’s play remarkably well, and that can’t help but be delightful.

A Minister’s Wife
Through July 14
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio
San Jose, CA

Show #66 of 2013, attended June 26.

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