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A Minister's Wife

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kate Fry and Marc Kudisch.
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

The good news about A Minister's Wife, the new musical that Lincoln Center Theater has just opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is that it transcends the ordinary to soar into the realm of the theatrical in the way that only musicals can. Five people bemused or befuddled by love and the responsibility they have to it and to each other, rhapsodizing all at once—to the point that you can't discern individual words, but understand everything anyway—before an infinite star field of promise, is the kind of fusion of sight and sound that suggests the writers had something substantial on their minds.

The bad news is two-fold: First, that this scene of melodic and emotional grace is confined to only the final three minutes of a show that runs an hour and a half; and second, that it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Candida, the 1898 George Bernard Shaw play on which Austin Pendleton (book), Joshua Schmidt (music), Jan Levy Tranen (lyrics), and Michael Halberstam (who conceived and directed) have ostensibly based this musical.

Ordinarily, this would not be a problem. Musical adapters who truly transform their source material are not, and should not be, beholden to decisions made decades before songs became part of the equation. Unfortunately, Shaw's material has not been transformed. Much has been cut, and even more has been simplified to near Cliffs Notes levels, but no one has attempted to make this new-titled work an identifiably new work. That hurts A Minister's Wife, both because it's lazy and ineffective and because it forces the musical to compete with Shaw's play—something that cannot, and does not, end well.

In chipping out his book, Pendleton has retained all the basics but none of the details of Shaw's complex study of obligation, romance, and the places they intertwine. Still present is the central trio, the Reverend James Morell (Marc Kudisch), a pastor using the pulpit to spread the glories of socialism to the working-class poor of his London congregation; his wife, the strong-headed and free-thinking Candida (Kate Fry); and Eugene Marchbanks (Bobby Steggert), the youthful poet who fancies liberating Candida from her "deathly" marriage to her "doltish" husband. Morrell's secretary and curate (respectively Liz Baltes and Drew Gehling) remain on hand as well.

Bobby Steggert
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

But Candida's money-grubbing father is gone, and without a capitalistic anchor, the economic concerns that underlie and define the story's love triangle become essentially nonexistent. And with so many scenes and speeches trimmed (though numerous lines remain intact from Shaw), basic story elements—such as the depth of Candida's influence on her husband's career and what makes Marchbanks even a theoretical threat to the Morells' marriage—become inert and often downright incomprehensible. Allen Moyer's cluttered drawing-room set, David Zinn's costumes, and Keith Parham's warmly muted lighting often say more about these people than any of their own words do.

Schmidt and Tranen have provided everyone a fair amount to sing, but the songs don't do any heavy lifting; in most cases, they're either directly musicalized dialogue, or slightly rewritten directly musicalized dialogue. Many of these numbers don't merely take their cues from spoken lines, they repeat them wholesale, sung, and then barely bother to expand on the ideas. Except for that finale quintet, none of the songs says or does anything of note, aside from charmingly showcasing conductor Timothy Splain's lush four-piece ensemble. (Pasquale Laurino's violin solos are particularly gorgeous.)

True, similar writing worked in Schmidt's haunting musical Adding Machine. But there his songs complemented the jagged nature and rampant alienation of Elmer Rice's structure, which let him create a handful of musical scenes that could eventually coalesce into a single, recognizable universe. They didn't just replace Rice's words, they let them evolve into something that needed to be sung—that never happens here. Halberstam has decently directed the action and the actors, but his concept is too bland to succeed.

Fry comes the closest to delivering: She crisply embodies a Victorian woman of next-to-regal stature, displaying strength and confidence sufficient to make you believe she'd succeed with the role in the non-musical version. Everyone else has more trouble: Kudisch barks almost every line and lyric with a one-dimensional bravado that doesn't reveal James's magnetism; Steggert's Marchbanks is whiny and schizophrenic, openly aggressive more than appealing (the Younger Brother he played in Ragtime does not belong in turn-of-the-century England); and Gehling and Baltes play their supporting roles with towering indifference that leaves you forgetting them whenever they step offstage.

Not that it's easy to remember most of what happens here: Without the play's sprawl or a traditional musical's excitement, you're left watching a meandering think piece of a show that does everything except think. All that lingers in the mind is that final number, a robust expression of unfettered feeling that pierces by trusting that the music will touch your heart and make you temporarily forget your head. A Minister's Wife fails to satisfy because it doesn't take that risk more often.

A Minister's Wife
Through June 12
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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