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A couple of couples with doubts and with decisions ...
 ... With songs

This time, we're looking at two thoughtful musicals that examine how male/female partners-in-life-and-love deal with each other and other compelling things that enter the picture. In one scene of seemingly ordered married ways, entering the scene—and changing it—is another man, and passions flare. In the other, the passions and practicalities of a couple's collaborative work bring them together and sometimes separate them. The first is adapted from George Bernard Shaw and the other is adapted from the real life of the couple playing themselves and their own songs.

A Minster's WifeA MINISTER'S WIFE
ORIGINAL OFF-BROADWAY (LINCOLN CENTER) CAST

PS Classics

The Bible has plenty to say about marriage, and so did the formidable playwright George Bernard Shaw, and his play Candida has a Bible-toting, man of the cloth—quite formidable and opinionated himself—potentially unraveled by a challenger in the presence of his presumed happy house and happy spouse. Now musicalized as A Minister's Wife, with script by Austin Pendleton, music by Joshua Schmidt and lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen, this story taking place in London in 1898, the year the play was published, is in some ways the same old story of happily-ever-after interruptus, thanks to a sudden romantic rival. This period piece is informed by society's views, then and now, on marriage and independent thinking for women. All bets are off when love is strong and all parties are strong-minded.

In A Minister's Wife, as in the musical The Baker's Wife, the titular settled-in-life wife is unsettled but intrigued by a man younger than herself, with the age gulf between the two men even greater. In this case, the callow youth, Eugene, is just 18, seen by the serenely unflappable Christian Socialist minister as a "fool" of a boy, a pipsqueak David to his Goliath should the possibility of a romantic battle or battles of will or wits be more than a fantasy. While the Shaw original is oft labeled a comedy, there is more drama with tension than chuckles, with or without barbs, as the listening experience on CD unfolds. Although audiences might think of themselves as wiser and thus superior to the self-satisfied holier-than-thou man of the holy Book—or Eugene, who prefers the pages of romantic poetry and is blinded by it and the myopia of youth—the actors play them without condescension. This key element makes everything more real and sympathetic and involving. And the lady each loves in his own way is increasingly flesh-and-blood-and-mind as things progress rather than bog down.

Marc Kudisch finds a great role here as the commanding—but later not-so-in-command—Reverend Morell. He digs into his material and character. Sometimes cast in roles where virility and vanity are (almost) all, with well-played self-satisfied swagger and strut, there's much more going on here. The ability to lead a one-man parade of power and pomposity is nicely exploited, but this is no one or two-dimensional portrayal. His fierceness is channeled and churning, first in Morell's ordered professional life as he crisply orders his schedule and orders about two staff members, played winningly but not as wimpy will-doers by Drew Gehling and Liz Baltes. We get to hear a mouthful and a half of the clergyman's points of view on God and "civilization" which are stirring or stirring the pot (and, soon, the plot).

"Compelling" and "charismatic" describe Bobby Steggert's uniquely strong-backboned Eugene, as these adjectives could fit other similarly dazzling work this actor-singer has done. Focused and fueled by fast-burning flames unique to burning youth and burning love, one feels incendiary sparks even with this auditory-only experience. His high voice and the high-and-mighty self-image of Eugene fan the flames. The ardent poet, perhaps a deluded fool with his folly, has unblinking, searing self-righteousness. Featherweights who think they are heavyweights can—surprise—win the prize. Or can they? If you don't know the classic original play, you could be kept guessing. There are some changes made in characterization, and one main character of the wife's father was eliminated in this now five-character play.

Last, but hardly least, to discuss: the title role, whether we think of this as A Minister's Wife or the play named after her actual given name, Candida. No mere pawn or pampered princess, ignorant or too easily swayed, played alternately blithely and pensively by Kate Fry, Candida is her own person and though her head may turn, she is not about to lose it. Wisely, the piece as directed (and the actress) does not show Candida's hand too soon, keeping us wondering how astute or vulnerable she may be.

For me, the star attraction and key players are often none of these talented quintet human stars so ably playing their roles, but rather another small group. That is: the musical accompaniment, orchestrated for four pieces by the composer and conducted by Richard Carsey. Most especially, the cello (Laura Bontrager) and violin (Pasquale Laurino) become rhapsodic, riveting equal partners in establishing and developing emotion and passions. The quartet is completed admirably by pianist Timothy Splain and Jonathan Levine on bass clarinet, playing subtext and subtleties, matching characters (and actors) with the emotions expressed, and becoming a counterpoint or encourager/enabler, if you will, to their feelings whether bottled up or bursting at the seams. All this theatrical and musical atmosphere sounds kinetic and rich as captured in the studio by PS Classics producer Tommy Krasker, recorded and mixed by the label's staff engineer Bart Migal, with PS Classics' A&R director/co-founder Philip Chaffin executive producer on this recording.

The score itself is involving and seductive, serving the piece, and very much of a piece, but it needs to be experienced as a full piece. Individual songs, which sometimes bleed into each other and are woven with bits of spoken lines that slide back and again into sung lines, are dialogue and plot-driven, mostly interactive among characters. Chamber piece? Soap opera? Why categorize? It's certainly not a bouncy musical comedy with take-home tunes or easily extricated stand-alone pieces that could apply to other situations, for the sung dialogue and confrontations are full of plot-specific interactions and references. Joshua Schmidt, who was memorably adventurous and nontraditional with his score for The Adding Machine, adds another feather to his cap with his music here, which does not recall that approach except perhaps in the ability to musicalize raw nerves and foreboding. With the challenging task of language-heavy Shaw speeches morphing into lyrics confined to and enriched by melody, the Tranen lyrics often eschew rhyme altogether. Dams burst with feelings and opinions expressed, without stopping for rhyme or even coming to a full stop for dialogue lines. It can be a hurricane of words, but they are often simple words, with the lyrics lean in their own way.

There's the super-spare, super-short song "Candida, Candida" whose lyric begins with just her name sung by the infatuated Eugene in various reverential or exultant colors 10 times in a row, followed by the line, "All that I feel is Candida!" with Candida noting that now he calls her by her first name, "Never Mrs. Morell/ Each time a prayer." Without any additional lyrics, with the music and gifted, attentive Bobby Steggert imbuing each "Candida" with the observed prayerfulness, joy, etc., it economically does much the same job as a landmark score's song where our hero exults in the how the name of his new beloved can sound ("say it soft and it's almost like praying: 'Maria'"). Another Steggert number, the sensationally sweet "Shallops and Scrubbing Brushes," is a tender but somehow titanic standout, as he so romantically imagines taking his lady love away, perhaps by boat "or golden chariot to fly through the heavens" to take them " far from the world/ Where marble floors are washed by the rain." Kate Fry shines in "Isn't He Foolish?," enchanted and enchanting, a fine example of economy in a lyric and melody, and perhaps one that can have a life outside the show.

For those who strictly prefer to download, cherry-pick tracks, or weigh a decision between that and procuring a physical copy, note that downloading won't be do-able until late next month, while the hard-copy CD is just out in stores and online, and at a special low price at the label's website. The CD is sold with a booklet containing all the lyrics and the words of recorded spoken material, a plot synopsis, a few photos, and background pieces by John Guare and this musical's conceiver/director, Michael Halberstam.

Greetings From YorkvilleGREETINGS FROM YORKVILLE
ORIGINAL CAST

What you see (and hear) is what you get: Greetings from Yorkville is a two-character musical, with cabaret overtones, by the two writers playing themselves—partners in life and songwriting and putting together shows and deciding to make a CD—and using some material from their actual past shows and CDs. It's not at all an "And then we wrote ... " narrated presentation; they are playing themselves as characters, longing to be heard and produced, gritting their teeth slogging through day jobs, getting their foot in the show biz door, writing songs, playing a part, being apart, finding that apartment  ...

Collaborating on the lyrics, Robert Grusecki (also the composer and pianist) and Anya Turner (also the bookwriter, though very few spoken lines are included) have some charm and skill as performers and writers. I was familiar with them and several of the numbers recycled here from their two studio albums going back to the 1990s, now used as plot moments. (Some websites show this cast album, but offer only sound clips from those earlier versions, which are fine, but I find the singing warmer and more confident here.) As a show, Greetings from Yorkville greeted audiences back in 2007, so consider this another in the long line of belated cast albums. Since the journey of the journeyman songwriters has them musicalizing Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in a contemporary setting, some of that score is incorporated, too. This is a modest affair, sometimes feeling like not-so-much ado about nothing we haven't heard before in countless starstruck sagas, backstage musicals, and musical jukebox songwriter/performer biographies of the famous and the fabulous and the fictional. Though much is genial and rather sweet, there can be a nagging feeling that others have done it with more depth, more laughs, more insight, or more drama (not to mention the campy and soap opera type climbs to success). The ups and downs of collaborators in songwriting who are also a romantic couple recalls the premise of the Broadway musical They're Playing Our Song which was inspired by the real-life coupledom of its writers, Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, though they did not play the roles or use their names for the characters. Obstacle courses, youthful dreams and the songwriting team doing a perky Manhattan nightclub revue of their own material has already been covered in Stephen Sondheim's musical Merrily We Roll Along.

The aspect of the writers also having a romantic relationship is barely glimpsed in the songs as they are used. No song allows them interaction beyond the career steps, there's no argument, no love song to each other as themselves, we don't know how they met, and the most open emotional moments are in soliloquies. A sad song when they are apart opens up feelings, but they aren't hearing each other face to face, and their feelings are suggested to be identical since they each sing the same words in part of the song. The title song may say "I miss you" briefly and share her enthusiasm for finding the apartment in upper East side Manhattan's Yorkville, but that is in the form of a letter being written and read. Although there are tender times here and some self-effacement rather than grandstanding is all appreciated, it can feel statically, non-dramatically solipsistic. When they complain about their frustrations early on, they complain "cute." Is the prominent line in "Ordinary People" about "ordinary people leading ordinary lives" an apology or preemptive strike and disclaimer for those who might want something else? The lyric's referenced "extraordinary dreams" that these two have just seem to be the usual happiness in the entertainment business and being a happy couple.

In its own low-key way and occasional splashy moments, the songs and singing offer some endearing pleasures and delights, while other moments plod or seem to carefully glide on thin ice, emotionally. On the plus side, Robert's solo about seeking to be "Happy" is a more satisfying glimpse into honest self-assessment and revealing himself. And "Musical Comedy Dream" is rather a charmer and, while many others have had their way with Sondheim parodies, their "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is pretty nifty in writing and performance (their stand-in for the "demon barber of Fleet Street" is "the dairy farmer of Oshkosh," with the sound of mooing and sheep bleating). We know we're seeing the stage pieces for this and the "Showcases" segment, but that can't be said for all the show-within-a-show "on stage" pieces. It's not always evident when they are themselves and when it's a sample of a song they wrote for a stage play. The press kit had a helpful plot synopsis, but the simple cardboard sleeve has no such information and that's an unfortunate decision for listeners who'd like more context, though some can be guessed. Unfortunately, so can too many of the rhymes. And, while some lyrics are satisfying, some are as vague or vapid as "The road is the road is the road is the road" (the song is called "The Road") and "Joy is good" (in "Life Is Good," although I do like the line that follows "Hope is good," saying hope is hopefully going to stay).

As much as the score focuses on showing shows and show business, one respite from all that, "Iowa Summer," in which Anya sings thoughtfully of the nostalgia for her childhood home and kin, has some welcome depth and heart. However, her ancestral saga of "Clara Drum," while earnest, feels heavy-handed and leaden. She is, however, a versatile singer, the stronger of the two vocally, bringing sunny good spirits to the early numbers when she's playing herself as a younger woman and spunk to the onstage pieces. For the most part, Robert's piano playing strikes the right touch, not overdressing or over-stressing phrases and feelings, and while he comes as fairly serious and reserved, when the material pastiches old school musical comedy panache and zip, the playing is light and sprightly. Likewise, his melody writing shows versatility as well as reserve, though a few numbers feel dated in style, perhaps intentionally so at times.

The pair, whose albums and website bill them by their first names, are working on a new musical, promising 15 "all new" songs.


- Rob Lester


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