“Pygmalion” excepted, the works of George Bernard Shaw have not translated well to musical theater. The pitfalls of such tinkering can be seen in the transformation of the 1894 comedy “Candida” — about a wise and perceptive minister’s wife in the slums of east London — into “A Minister’s Wife.” Hopes that were raised due to the presence of composer Joshua Schmidt, whose 2008 adaptation of Elmer Rice’s obscure “The Adding Machine” was startlingly good, are hereby dashed: Lightning has not struck twice, not this time out anyway. “A Minister’s Wife” is “Candida” with a fair chunk of the Shavian stimulation removed.
Chicago-born tuner hails from the Writers Theater in Glencoe, Ill., where it originated in June 2009. That group’s artistic director Michael Halberstam conceived and directed, the conception being the apparent root of the trouble. Halberstam brought in Chicago fixture Schmidt (out of Milwaukee) and local lyricist Jan Levy Tranen. Book is by Austin Pendleton, who has had a long multi-faceted career in New York but is also a Steppenwolf member.
The authors have not adapted “Candida” for the musical stage, exactly; they appear to have merely set parts of it to music. And enigmatically so; “A Minister’s Wife” seems to switch from spoken dialogue to sung dialogue at the will of the authors, rather than the will of the characters. Even when there is plenty of singing, there is rarely song.
The three leads — Broadway veteran Marc Kudisch and up-and-coming leading man Bobby Steggert, joined by Chicago actress Kate Fry, as, respectively, the reverend, the poet and the wife — know what to do when they get a chance for some real singing. But then they lapse back into the dramatico-musico no man’s land of this Shavian triangle that is more intellectual than romantical. All do well with the material, but it is a battle and something of a trial. Liz Baltes, also from the Chicago production, offers strong support as the minister’s secretary. Music comes from a mellow quartet visible through an upstage scrim, effectively orchestrated by the composer.
“The Adding Machine” benefited not only from Schmidt’s remarkable score but from the visionary direction of David Cromer. (Schmidt’s main career thus far has been as a sound designer, his Broadway credits consisting of Cromer’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and the current “House of Blue Leaves.”) There is no such directorial vision here, causing “Minister’s Wife” to lumber on.
Halberstam and his authors have seen fit to excise one of Shaw’s main characters: Candida’s father Burgess, the coarse and sordid industrialist who provides ballast to counterbalance the good minister. This friction might have added some welcome color to the musicalization, in the manner of Alfred Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” As it is, though, “A Minister’s Wife” is already overlong at ninety intermissionless minutes.
Musical numbers: “Sermon,” “Candida’s Coming Home,” “Enchantment,” “In Response,” “The Love of a Fool,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Is It Like This for Her Here Always?” “Shy, Shy, Shy,” “Isn’t He Foolish?” “Shallops and Scrubbing Brushes,” “Off to the Guild of St. Matthew,” “At the Gate of Heaven,” “Candida, Candida!” “The Second Preaching Match,” “Champagne,” “Spoiled From the Cradle,” “Into the Night”