"People who smile at nothing are capable of anything", claims rigidly proper Charlotte Bartlett (Karen Ziemba), cousin and ward/chaperone to Lucy Honeychurch (Ephie Aardema) in the world premiere musical whose book is taken from the novel by E. M. Forster and the 1985 Merchant/Ivory film A Room with a View. In 1908, Brits followed propriety to the letter; rules and regulations governed very closely the way they spoke and acted. So, when they traveled to Florence, Italy or anywhere outside of Britania, for that matter, as is the case in Act I, they carry their Baedeker or guide book and refer to it, as a religious fanatic would a bible. Now onstage at The Old Globe, San Diego, A Room with a View is a beautifully written and executed musical by Marc Acito and Jeffrey Stock with impeccably detailed staging by Scott Schwartz. It also boasts a phenomenal cast and magnificent art direction, with exquisite sets by Hedi Ettinger and period perfect costumes by Judith Dolan.
The turn of the century was a tremendously difficult time period for the British, as with the onset of World War I, changes in technology as well as class system were about to occur. If middle class Lucy Honeychurch is expected to marry Cecil Vyse (Will Reynolds) because his family has money, the arrangement is locked in stone, at least for Lucy's mother (Gina Ferrall). But...because of Lucy's unexpected, strangely engaging meeting in Florence with George Emerson (Kyle Harris), whose father (Kurt Zischke) is a socialist and whose odd behavior is despiccable especially to prim Charlotte, Lucy's mindset is rattled, making her unhappy, confused and unsure of her future.
The most alluring feature of A Room with a View is that, despite the obvious issues of morality, it never takes itself too seriously. Italians are painted as passionately indecent creatures who see and feel everything for what it is. This is a reality that George can accept willingly but not Lucy, at least at first, and certainly not Charlotte or Reverend Mr. Beeber (Edward Staudenmayer), but it is a fact of nature, a culturally primal element that will slowly have its effect on these British folk, who will soon be forced to come to terms with transformation in their daily living. We can see right through most of the characters, their weaknesses and their strengths; they as such are not surprising. What is a surprise is little by little how they accept the consequences of true love, how they fall victim to its conquest, and learn to embrace life to the fullest extent. And within the process, it's sheer delight to watch and experience, particularly with Schwartz's elaborate staging and the simply gorgeous artwork that makes up the set. Ettinger's postcards arranged in a semicircle around the main flat are a curiosity, as the light behind them moves from one to another allowing the mind to view only one piece at a time (outstanding lighting design by David Lander). Whereas the Merchant/Ivory film is long and sometimes plodding, as it stays faithful to Forster's novel, the plot elements of the stage musical, where dramatic license is a must, are tied up much faster and expeditiously, yet deliciously, never impeding a sense of enjoyment. Stock's music is heavenly especially the very operatic "Non Fate Guerra" at the end of Act I, and the beautifully lilting "I Know You", "There Is a Yes" and Charlotte's eleventh hour "Frozen Charlotte" in Act II. Audiences will walk away remembering "Splash" with its very tasteful male nudity, as George, Freddy (Etai BenSchlomo) and even the Reverend frolic, bathing in the lake - this is really the first proof of the Italian influence and how a newfound freedom is about to overtake the main characters, turning them ecstatically inside out, upside down.
The cast are all brilliant. Ziemba is wonderfully starchy as Charlotte, but with an underlying concern and sympathy for Lucy's frazzled state. Aardema is rather nondescript at the start as Lucy, but gradually warms to the character as well as to our hearts. Harris is vibrantly attractive and intelligent as George, whereas Reynolds' weak and disgustingly unmasculine Cecil provides the ideal contrast. BenSchlomo makes Freddy delightfully playful, and he and Reynolds also essay the two irritating sisters/traveling companions in Florence that are so easy to dislike. Also portraying two roles skillfully is Gina Ferrall, as novelist Miss Lavish, not without a rather butch appearance and fervently masculine demeanor, and the understated but caring mother Mrs. Honeychurch in Act II. Staudenmayer is wonderful as the Reverend, so quick to admonish in the beginning but one of the first to vibrantly change his ways for the better in Act II. Zischke is appropriately straightforward and friendly as Mr. Emerson, and Jacquelynne Fontaine and Glenn Seven Allen as the servants make priceless appearances throughout with their passionate Italian couple of Act I, a scene stealing joy. Allen's rich singing voice is a standout.
A Room with a View is a tad slow at the onset, but overall a rich and lovely experience. If you loved the movie, you will love the stage musical as well. Marc Acito has cautiously adapted Forster's poetic and lightweight composition for the stage, and Stock's music is sure to please. Schwartz's cast are wondrous to behold. Don't miss this!