In a rare side-step into musical theater, Princeton’s McCarter Theater has mounted an ambitious but sterile adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century short story “Behind a Mask.” The first full-length musical commissioned by the theater, featuring book, music and lyrics by Polly Pen, “The Night Governess” is a stately chamber piece that resembles a gothic “Masterpiece Theatre” presentation with songs.
The tale follows the exploits of a deceitful, manipulative governess from hell. Jean Muir — played with a delicious leer by Judith Blazer — is hired by a wealthy widow to provide instruction for her obnoxious teenage daughter. Ms. Muir is not what she appears to be. She has an elusive past as an actress, is a closet alcoholic, and is in league with a housekeeper in a plot to land a rich husband.
Composer Pen, best known for her Obie-winning score for the 1996 “Bed and Sofa” and the earlier “Goblin Market,” has transplanted Alcott’s murky tale, originally set in England, to Philadelphia. It is now set just before the start of the Civil War. She has constructed a piece dry in tone, lacking in suspense, but not without a bracing touch of whimsy.
Pen’s score lacks a bold melodic structure, but a few bright moments surface, most notably when Blazer and Alma Cuervo pair for “Odd Women,” a persuasive comment on Victorian women who lead private lives. The entire household prances about in night dresses for “The Somnambulists’ March,” an amusing sleep-walking confessional. Overall, however, the score is repetitious and musically laborious.
Blazer has a field day as the mysterious nanny — cautious, cool, cunning and calculated to freeze the blood. She also lends her bright and considerably rich vocal talent to the operatic score.
As the brooding housekeeper — who smokes cigars on her day off — Cuervo might have jumped from the pages of Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” Mary Stout, as the fidgety family matriarch Mrs. Coventry, flutters in the dithery tradition of Laura Hope Crews and has the tuner’s best number in “The Bathing Machine,” a recollection of a childhood visit to the Jersey shore.
The polished cast also includes Robert Sella, convincing as an insufferable young dandy; Danny Gurwin as a Coventry heir; Danielle Ferland as his obnoxious 16-year-old sister; and a lovely Erin Hill as a visiting cousin. John Jellison doubles as an aristocratic fisherman and a barking family dog with an attitude.
Lisa Peterson’s sharply paced staging is a considerable asset. The hoop-skirted costumes by Anita Yavich are positively gorgeous, but the set design, with its bright frame and semi-transparent scrim panels, fails to capture the dark mood of the piece. A little of the Brontes’ gothic grandeur might have helped.