What’s so intriguing about composer Josh Schmidt — as much in his new musical “A Minister’s Wife” as in his much-praised Off Broadway success “Adding Machine” — is that he doesn’t follow typical rules of musical theater. In his musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida,” characters move from singing to speaking and vice-versa without conventional setup. The score doesn’t punctuate the action but is woven deeply into it, unearthing a musical voice for the characters that enhances the drama’s emotional conflicts the way an extra few sticks of dynamite enhance an explosion.
It’s different, it’s fascinating, and, as with “Adding Machine,” it adds layered, fresh inner life to an old chestnut.
There are three main characters in Shaw’s 1898 drama, originally written in response to Ibsen’s “A Doll House” — with Shaw insisting that it was really men, and not women, who lived in a protected domestic bubble within the illusion of marital bliss.
Schmidt invests each character with a unique rhythm whenever they sing, and as the conflict develops and the musical themes interact, the score becomes more and more intense.
For socialist minister and adoring husband James Morrell (Kevin Gudahl), Schmidt has concocted a clarion sound, pious and purposeful and steadily paced.
Coming into direct conflict with Morrell, as a sudden rival for wife Candida’s affection, is excitable young poet Eugene Marchbanks (Alan Schmuckler), who sings at a higher pitch and faster pace. His songs are turbulent, roiling, heavy on the strings. (There’s an offstage quartet playing the music consisting of piano, cello, violin and clarinet/bass clarinet.)
Candida (Kate Fry), the object of the men’s mutual affection, possesses a sound of pure sincerity, coming closest to what one might hear in a more traditional musical. One of her songs even possesses a title, “Isn’t He Foolish?,” that could have been used for the most famous of Shavian musicals, “My Fair Lady.” There’s no real comparison beyond that, but the point is that she has a voice independent of the men, and a more melodic one at that.
“A Minister’s Wife” premieres at Writers’ Theater in Glencoe, Ill., in a 108-seat venue, under the direction of Michael Halberstam. Despite the extraordinary score, overall the show is not yet as fully conceived or ideally executed as “Adding Machine” was when that musical snuck up on everyone at Next Theater in nearby Evanston in 2007.
Austin Pendleton has adapted the play, excising a key character in Candida’s amoral capitalist father. Despite fine work, the book definitely feels in need of another round of refinement. Perhaps Schmidt and lyricist Jan Tranen — who has artfully adjusted sections of dialogue into lyrics — should simply set more of the work to music, where it feels most alive.
The show starts slowly and at times feels awkward. Halberstam holds it all together and keeps it moving quickly, but the 90-minute production feels bound to convention. When characters speak, this is a fairly standard, slightly over-the-top production of “Candida.” There’s nothing wrong with that exactly, but it doesn’t rise to the level of creativity that the music demands. Put simply, the music transports, but the visual universe does not.
Gudahl comes off at first a bit like Henry Higgins before finding his own voice, and the bulging-eyed Schmuckler focuses too often on the fidgetiness of youth. But both deserve enormous credit for moving smoothly, gracefully between dialogue and song, and Fry captures the ideal within Candida without making her ridiculous or unbelievable.
It’s awfully hard to find too much fault in a production that provides a fundamentally effective vehicle for Schmidt’s score, which — make no mistake — is remarkable. Despite providing little in the way of the easily hummable, the music’s intensity lingers in the mind, and the gut, for days following.