A Minister’s Wife

MinisterOriginal Off-Broadway Cast (PS Classics, 2011) 3 Stars (3 / 5) Bernard Shaw’s plays do not easily adapt into musicals; My Fair Lady took Lerner and Loewe two tries, and only worked when they opened up the action beyond Shaw’s scenes. The opposite approach is taken in A Minister’s Wife, based on Shaw’s Candida (1897). Composer Joshua Schmidt, lyricist Jan Levy Tranen, and librettist Austin Pendleton, following a concept of director Michael Halberstam, concentrated rather than expanded the narrative. They jettisoned a key character (Candida’s crude father) and focused on the domestic triangle of fiery minister James Morell (Marc Kudisch); his lovely wife, Candida (Kate Fry); and Eugene Marchbanks (Bobby Steggert), a young poet whom Morell has rescued from the streets. Liz Baltes as Morell’s secretary, Prossy, and Drew Gehling as his earnest curate, Lexy, complete the outstanding cast. Kudisch’s opening number, “Sermon,” conveys the basic tenets of Christian Socialism, but an unsettling dissonance in the music hints that while Morell claims “we must learn to live for each other,” perhaps he needs to listen to his own words. Steggert is terrific as Marchbanks: his poet is frail, self-pitying, whiny, and yet confident in his passion, especially in “Shallops and Scrubbing Brushes” and the “Second Preaching Match.” Fry gets the benefit of the most melodious parts of Schmidt’s score, yet she wallops both men in the blunt “Spoiled From the Cradle.” Kudisch’s minister progresses from poised to angry to fearful as his inner flaws are revealed. The whole piece is wrapped up in the gorgeous “Into the Night,” as the cast ponders the future. Tranen’s lyrics are Shavian to the core, with many lifted directly from the play; Schimidt’s orchestrations for a chamber orchestra do a good job of advancing the subtext, with Laura Bontrager’s cello and Pasquale Laurino’s violin especially exquisite.  Like Schmidt’s Adding Machine, this is an unusual, challenging show. One could wish for more distinct songs, rather than so many extended scenes set to music. But A Minister’s Wife is  a small gem in itself. — Laura Frankos