BWW Reviews: Penfold Theatre Brings the Groundbreaking Musical A MINISTER'S WIFE to Austin

About once in a decade, a show comes along that completely changes the genre itself. 1956's My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, certainly ranks amongst the greatest and most celebrated musicals of all time and broke new ground in the use of song and carefully chosen lyrics to build the characters. If you're not sure what I mean, just try to imagine Eliza saying "lovely" instead of "loverly."

And yet as successful and ground-breaking as My Fair Lady was, there has not been a successful musical adaptation of any of Shaw's other plays...until now. A Minister's Wife, now playing in Austin through a new production by Penfold Theatre, is a delicate, understated, and exceedingly beautiful piece that wonderfully adapts Shaw's play Candida into musical theatre form.

The briskly-paced chamber musical follows the story of Reverend James Morell, a workaholic with a twinge of narcissism who is far too preoccupied with his congregation to pay any attention to his relationship with his wife, Candida. It's only when a young poet, Eugene, voices his own affections towards Candida and his disdain for the reverend's rhetoric-filled sermons that Morell realizes that the public and personal life he's cultivated are not as stable as they seem.

While the material stays very true to Shaw's original play and includes much of Shaw's musings on society, politics, marriage, and love, it is void of the slowness and dryness that often permeates Shaw's work. The brisk pace is much to the credit of the show's creators. Austin Pendleton's book, Jan Levy Tranen's lyrics, and Joshua Schmidt's score are so intricately woven together that it is nearly impossible to mention one without mentioning the other two. The songs and the dialogue flow together effortlessly, and Tranen's often non-rhyming lyrics easily bleed into spoken word. While there are no stand-out songs or hummable melodies, the score adds a richness and tone to the piece, making it more of a play with music than a musical. You will not find any showstoppers like "With a Little Bit of Luck" or standards like "I Could Have Danced All Night" here. You won't even find an applause break as the songs are that interwoven into the book. What you will find is a score that is daring, challenging, dissonant, and astonishingly successful at pushing the musical genre into new territory.

As unique and difficult as the score is, Penfold Theatre's cast makes it look simple and second nature. As Morell, Greg Holt has a rich and stirring voice and portrays his character as a man whose outward strength masks deeply hidden insecurities. The gorgeous Jill Blackwood is superb as Candida. With her stunning looks, the sweetness of her voice, and the charm and wit she exudes, it's entirely believable that men would vie for her affection. Nathan Jerkins provides plenty of laughs as Lexy Mill, Morell's amiable but dim-witted curate, and Amy Downing is fantastic as Morell's biting and hard-nosed secretary, Prossy. But of the five person cast, it's Andrew Cannata as the young suitor who's the most captivating. Prior to the show, I heard someone in the audience remark that Mr. Cannata has one of the best voices in Austin, and I enthusiastically agree. There is both strength and vulnerability in his voice, and the pure, easy tones that come from him are remarkable. Cannata's acting matches his musical talents as well. He creates a character that is passionate, insightful, and in agonizing love with Candida.

Michael McKelvey's direction beautifully fits the material and his wonderful cast of actors. Like the show itself, McKelvey's direction is understated and simple but incredibly effective. While the pacing, particularly in the first hour, is quite brisk, there are quite a few moments where McKelvey lets us breathe, particularly in the moments where Eugene's affection towards Candida is discovered by Morell and later by Candida herself. Morell's study, designed by Jeff Cunningham, is excellently done and full of details, a great achievement considering the limitations of the Trinity Theatre stage, the lighting by Aeric Hansen is finely executed as well, and Kari Taylor's costumes are period appropriate and quite pleasant.

Though A Minister's Wife is a far cry from the glitzy, showy, razzle dazzle Broadway style musical, the show and Penfold Theatre's production of it are top-notch. Surely Eliza Doolittle would agree that this is a loverly show indeed.




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