E.M. Forster’s 1908 “A Room With a View,” detailing a battle under the Tuscan sun between Edwardian-era repression and the life force, is revealed as remarkably amenable to musicalization at the Old Globe. Librettist Marc Acito distills the narrative into salient incidents with reasonable effectiveness, while the struggle between sensuality and starch deftly plays itself out in Jeffrey Stock’s attractive score. Tuner will satisfy audiences craving a heaping helping of passione with their dramatic pasta, though helmer Scott Schwartz’s choices drain the piece of subtlety and interest.
Forster, by all accounts a lonely, closeted gay man for most of his long life, knew well the paralyzing effect of social strictures on one’s natural instincts. Note the clash of sweet and sour in the very surname of heroine Lucy Honeychurch (Ephie Aardema). Her war with herself is demonstrated by the affinity for Beethoven’s thunderous piano works that keeps peeping out from between her simpers, blushes and swoons.
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Deepening the conflict, Forster has it that the Honeychurch fortunes can only be repaired through an alliance with the wealthy, supremely snobbish Cecil Vyse (Will Reynolds), even though the siren songs of Florence — not to mention the charms of poor but vital bohemian George Emerson (Kyle Harris) — are ever beckoning.
There’s never much doubt as to how it’ll all turn out, as this production stacks the deck toward la vita bella, beginning with designer Heidi Ettinger’s ravishing, picture-postcard-inspired collage backdrops under David Lander’s limpid lighting. Only a churl could be immune to this setting’s romance. At one jaw-dropping point, a groundcloth is pulled out to reveal the field of violets in which George will give Lucy her first taste of honey (though Schwartz, typically, overstages the kiss).
Stock, remembered for 1997 succes d’estime “Triumph of Love,” excitingly weaves Forster’s literary themes into his melodic ones. The oompah self-satisfaction of anthemic “Dear Britannia” nicely contrasts with the gorgeous aria “Non Fate Guerra,” while a gramophone introduces the American ragtime “Splash” to signal the twentieth century spirit a-knocking. (Tune also underscores the full-monty restaging of the 1986 Merchant-Ivory movie’s iconic bathing scene; big points for boldness there.)
Yet Schwartz evidently doesn’t trust all this physical and musical extravagance to do the job, so he steers his cast into absurd, ludicrous cutouts of upper-class behavior. The women constantly squeal as if mice were underfoot, the men tromping about as the silliest of John Bulls. This cartoon parade is as unthreatening as it is boring, for how can you stage a tug-of-war when one side won’t even grab the rope?
Exceptions to the overdone acting notably include Harris — a powerful singer/actor and a real find — who incarnates George’s transition from despair to hope in one of Stock’s best numbers, “Something Tremendous.” Etai BenShlomo is fresh and engaging as rascally brother Freddy, and Gina Ferrall brings distinction to two roles she easily could have caricatured.
But by going the stock, imperious Lady Bracknell route, Karen Ziemba completely misses chaperone Charlotte’s terror of impropriety which is supposed to set the main plot complication in motion. Two gents in drag turn Forster’s gracious old-school matrons into idiot biddies. With Acito unwisely conflating two clerical characters into one, Edward Staudenmayer must strain to juggle an impossible dichotomy between affability and bigotry.
The love story is even less well served. Lucy lacks dignity and mystery. Panting and dashing as if off her Ritalin, Aardema can barely scrape up a single emotionally authentic moment, while Reynolds bestows a palsied tic on Cecil in case his inappropriateness as Lucy’s intended isn’t obvious enough. Never for a second do we feel she is forced to this marriage socially, psychologically or financially; she seems downright demented for even considering it.
“A Room With a View” is beautiful, but this first production does itself in by its refusal to raise the stakes and treat traditional authority’s power as something to be taken, and confronted, for real.