Review: ‘Christina Alberta’s Father’

Albert Edward

Albert Edward

Preemby … Henry Stram

Chris Hossett, etc. … Alma Cuervo

Christina Alberta

Preemby … Marla Schaffel

Teddy, etc. … John Lathan

Fay, etc. … Tina Johnson

Miss Rewster, etc. … Marceline Hugot

Major Bone, etc. … Don Mayo

Mrs. Bone, etc. … Jan Neuberger

Master Bine, etc. … Richard Holmes

Bobby, etc. … Andy Taylor

“Wheeeee!” is the first word spoken in “Christina Alberta’s Father,” the latest musical from “Goblin Market” triple-threat Polly Pen, but “twee” is the word that comes to mind frequently throughout the evening. A studied preciousness pervades Pen’s book, music and lyrics in this adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel about a man whose obsession with the lost continent of Atlantis leads him into madness in turn-of-the-century England, and the flapper daughter who finally rescues him.

The spare, dreamy settings — the show opens with grown-ups frolicking on a beach — will remind many of the work of designer Robert Israel, especially in the way they’re bleached by Michael Lincoln’s lighting. Albert Edward Preemby (Henry Stram) temporarily suppresses his fixation on Atlantis to marry a laundry empire heiress (Alma Cuervo) and get into the business. They have a daughter, Christina Alberta (Marla Schaffel), who promptly announces, “being raised in a laundry, it became my obligation to provide a mess.”

She becomes something of an Edwardian-era beatnik, hanging out with artsy intellectuals, some of whom speak in an approximation of Esperanto. Her father, meanwhile, becomes convinced he’s an ancient Sumerian king and proto-socialist called Sargon, a belief that eventually lands him in bedlam.

The message of “Christina Alberta’s Father” is entirely admirable and not very different from that of “An Inspector Calls,” which is that the Great War — WWI — was a terrible reminder that unless people began taking care of one another, humankind would self-destruct. But Pen, whose musical style here might best be described as post-Sondheim Muzak, makes the story cutesy and sentimental with a score that constantly (and irritatingly) punctuates dialogue with percussive or windy exclamation points. Director Andre Ernotte goes along with it, in a production that works all too hard at taking itself not too seriously. It could have used a little edge.

That said, Stram and Schaffel turn in lovely performances: Stram is an expert at conveying a fragile vulnerability perfectly suited to the role, while Schaffel does devil-may-care quite effectively. The rest of the performances are fine, too, and Andy Taylor is especially touching as a man whose emotional universe is large enough to embrace both father and daughter.

Christina Alberta's Father


A Vineyard Theater presentation of a musical in two acts with book, music and lyrics by Polly Pen, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Directed by Andre Ernotte.


Choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett; musical direction by Paulette Haupt. Sets, William Barclay; costumes, Gail Brassard; lighting, Michael Lincoln; orchestrations, Lawrence Yurman; production stage manager, Karen A. Potosnak. Artistic director, Douglas Aibel; executive director, Barbara Zinn Krieger; managing director, Jon Nakagawa. Opened May 4, 1994, at the Vineyard Theater. Reviewed May 25; 120 seats; $ 25 top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
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