Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Minister's Wife and I Am Harvey Milk

An Enchanting Production of A Minister's Wife

Christopher Vettel and Sharon Rietkerk
Photo by Kevin Berne
Who would have thought that someone could make a musical out of George Bernard Shaw's Candida? Austin Pendleton, Josh Schmidt and Jan Levy Tranen have successfully transferred this classic into a sharp-paced 100-minute musical. They have added to Candida the warmth that Shaw left out and have accomplished this transformation without doing damage to the letter of Shaw's play.

A Minister's Wife is a charming gem of a chamber musical with intricate melodies by Joshua Schmidt and clever lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen that capture both the scholarly and passionate magnetism of this piquant love triangle. Schmidt's score has a positive operatic flavor. It is in the school of Sondheim, written for musical-comedy voices with full length spoken scenes that require outstanding acting in order to make that effect. Austin Pendleton has done a splendid job of condensing a tightly written three-act play into an even tighter one-act libretto.

The central character James Morell (Christopher Vettel) is a magnetic, enthusiastic socialist clergyman who is very pleased with his life with his wife Candida (Sharon Rietkerk). He occasionally dotes on Candida, whom he regards as the perfect woman, although their marriage appears to be less than passionate. James is venerated by his secretary (Liz Baltes), his curate (Jarrod Zimmerman) and his parishioners, so he spends his days writing sermons and his evenings giving political lectures to which the public flocks. Everything in the clergyman's life is just fine until Eugene Marchbanks (Tim Homsley), an idealistic young poet, enters his life. This uncompromising young man falls in love with Candida and resolves to take her away from her unwitting husband. Instead of making love, the characters talk circles around it. They need no microphones or sweeping gestures to convey the seething jealousy, quiet rage and tender love in this drama.

Director Michael Halberstam has staged this beautiful production sensitively, with a single set, a five-person cast and a four-piece orchestra. Sharon Rietkerk is outstanding in the title role. Her golden voice fleshes out the incentives leading to her heartrending final choice.

Christopher Vettel is well matched as James. He is dogmatic yet irresistible with a slight growl in his voice. Vettel gives a stellar performance that slips almost imperceptibly from speaking to singing in his robust voice. Tim Homsley gives a charismatic performance as Marchbanks. He is perfect as the lovesick young man. He has a sweetly lyrical voice that allows him to make the most of Marchbanks' music. Liz Baltes as Prossy the firmly twisted minister's secretary and Jarrod Zimmerman as Lexy the obsequious assistant give good support to the main characters. Baltes has the right mixture of prissiness and vigor, and she is delightful singing the aria "Champagne." Jarrod Zimmerman has a full range voice when singing his songs.

Pianist and conductor Dolores Duran-Cefalu, Petr Masek on violin, Robin Snyder on cello, and Michael Touchi on bass clarinet sit on stage so that every penetrating chord hits home. They give passionate accents to the story without interjecting the easy flow of the drama with discrete musical sequences. Collette Pollard has designed a beautiful detailed Victorian drawing room set. Costumes by Brandin Baron and lighting by David Lee Cuthbert are a great asset to this drama.

A Minister's Wife runs through July 14 at the San Jose Rep Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. For tickets call 408-367-7255 or visit Coming up next is Nora and Delia Ephron Love, Loss and What I Wore running from July 19 through July 28th.

An Emotional Night with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus Singing Andrew Lippa's I Am Harvey Milk

I Am Harvey Milk was commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus along with Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus, Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, Vancouver Men's Chorus and Heartland Men's Chorus. Andrew Lippa's beautiful and emotional work premiered in San Francisco on June 26 and ran for three nights at the newly remodeled Nourse Theatre.

I Am Harvey Milk weaves the story of Harvey Milk's life, from boyhood to his rise as the first openly gay man to hold public office in California and to his assassination. It is part theatre and part choral work. Featured in this emotional tribute were guest stars Tony Award winner Laura Benanti as the soprano soloist, Andrew Lippa as Harvey Milk, and Noah Marlowe (Mary Poppins, Fun Home) as Young Harvey.

The first half of the evening performance was called "I Am the Legacy" and it contained the debut of six extraordinary pieces which were chosen by the Gay Men's Chorus. Guest director Noah Himmelstein filled the aisles with members of The Lollipop Guild, SWAG and Vocal Minority holding twinkling electronic candles and singing "We Will Know" and "I Met a Boy," a humorous look at couples from different decades. Other highlights were a lovely pas de deux danced by Chad Dawson and James Graham to "Falling Slowly" from Once. Seventeen-year-old Julian Hornik captivated the audience with his own composition, "Altoona, Pennsylvania," as he sang with a poignant voice and played the piano.

The second half showcased the world premiere of Lippa's song cycle. This was a moving, stimulating and thrilling oratorio. Instead of a retelling of Harvey Milk's life, the composer took pieces of Milk's life and turned them into songs both universal and personal. "Sticks and Stones" confirmed how name-calling can feel like a physical attack and how this was an incentive for the gay rights movement. Most crowd pleasing was the dominant section called "Friday Night in the Castro," a perfect appropriation of the '70s disco music that blared during Milk's rise to power. The house went bonkers.

Andrew Lippa showed powerful vocal chops playing Harvey Milk, especially when singing "Lavender Pen," an ode to the first gay rights bill, and the uplifting "Tired of Silence" in which he proclaimed that the best road to self-determination was to come out of the closet. Laura Benanti (Tony Award winner for Gypsy) as Harvey's mother or muse sang with superb vocal cords "Was I Wrong?" and "Leap." Most exciting was Noah Marlowe, who has already appeared on Broadway in Mary Poppins, as Young Harvey. He showed strong vocal chops singing "An Operatic Masterpiece."

The emotional evening was backed by the 30-member Bay Area Rainbow Orchestra led by Dr. Timothy Seelig. The group enunciated August Eriksmoen's innovative orchestrations without overpowering the singers.

Andrew Lazarow's projections were a great asset to this once in a lifetime event, showing various photographs and film footage on the life of Harvey Milk. There was also footage of the reactions to the Supreme Court's recent decision to nullify DOMA and Prop 8. I Am Harvey Milk ran from June 26 to June 28th.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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