Review: THE VIRTUOUS LIFE OF JOSEPH ANDREWS at Penguin Rep Theatre

World Premiere of Comedic Romp with Music Runs through Sept. 4

By: Aug. 18, 2022
Review: THE VIRTUOUS LIFE OF JOSEPH ANDREWS at Penguin Rep Theatre

The Virtuous Life of Joseph Andrews stars (from left) Maya Musial (Fanny Goodwill), Josh Powell (Parson Adams), Jonathan Randell Silver (Various roles), Liz Zazzi (Lady Booby), Steven Telsey (Joseph Andrews). Photo by John Quilty
"The Virtuous Life of Joseph Andrews" stars (from left) Maya Musial (Fanny Goodwill), Josh Powell (Parson Adams), Jonathan Randell Silver (Various roles), Liz Zazzi (Lady Booby), Steven Telsey (Joseph Andrews). (Photo by John Quilty)

As my co-reviewer Elyse (who doubles as my spouse) and I were en route to Stony Point - hard by the Hudson's west coast in Rockland County - to see Penguin Rep Theatere's latest offering, we managed expectations.

The Virtuous Life of Joseph Andrews is a world premiere, so there was little to go by other than the press release, which dubs it "a comedic romp with music, inspired by the novel by Henry Fielding."
(The show runs through Sept. 4; for tickets, visit penguinrep.org or call 845-786-2873.)

Film fans of my generation associate Fielding with 1963 Best Picture Oscar winner Tom Jones, based on another of his novels (and having zero to do with the 1960s pop music heartthrob, whose birth surname is Woodward).

That's the extent of the information we had in hand about Joseph Andrews as we barreled down the Palisades Interstate Parkway to see what Penguin Rep hath wrought this time.

As habitues of the venue, a splendidly converted and cavernous barn that plays host to an appetizing feast of live entertainment year-round, lovingly presided over by artistic director Joe Brancato and executive director Andrew M. Horn, we had good reason to be optimistic.

RELIABLE TRACK RECORD
"Have we ever seen a dud there?" wondered Elyse aloud. "Not that I recall," I recalled, adding, "Joe and Andrew have excellent taste." Indeed they do. The pair has an unwavering eye for original, quality material that makes Penguin Rep unique among theaters in this region.

I'm here to report that The Virtuous Life of Joseph Andrews is no exception to that rock-solid rule.

Fielding's name and literary ouevre is synonymous with England's mid-18th Century school of bawdy, picaresque storytelling. This brand new stage version of the Fielding tale follows the "misadventures [of] young, handsome, and naïve Joseph Andrews, a servant abandoned as a baby. Tutored by the clueless Parson Adams, Andrews sets off to find himself, but finds himself pursued by the lecherous Lady Booby, tempted by the wily chambermaid Betty, but in love with the forbidden Fanny."

As brought to life by the formidable talent on display, the plot - played as a fleet sequence of anecdotal adventures - is almost incidental to why the audience is held in thrall throughout this production, a rollicking tour de force of a farce. In its new format, the story's virtues are amplified by state-of-the-art production values that are the stock in trade of veteran theater professionals.

It all started when Joe Brancato asked playwright Cary Gitter ("The Sabbath Girl") to not only adapt Fielding's material for the stage, but also to wordsmith lyrics as well as the book, pairing him with composer Max Silverman. The team has crafted a constantly clever, sophisticated, yet simple, collection of "songs and ditties" (to use their word choice) that would not at all be out of place Off Broadway.

Their pithy confections not only add a diverting layer of entertainment to what otherwise would be a straight comedy, but they nimbly advance the plot. Gitter's quick-witted mastery of language and supple way with rhymes serves well the narrative and the theater experience.

Working off Gitter's lyrics, Silverman has fashioned tunes that go from ballads to bouncy to bawdy and back again. Gitter, who wrote the lyrics first, has given his musical teammate a lot to work with.

SNAPPY LYRICS
Here's a sampling ...
In the opening number, the cast invites us to ...
See ruffled collars, bustled skirts, worn by a bunch of brazen flirts.

Joseph, committed to staying a virgin until marriage, tells Fanny ... To not stay chaste is such a waste. It's in bad taste. It's quite debased.

Fanny ultimately agrees with Joseph's vow of chastity ... I know I am a servant girl, and that's all people see. But who says that a servant girl can't have her dignity.

One suspects the patron saint of modern musical theater, Stephen Sondheim, would approve.

In fact, the creative team has fun with sly, evanescent homage paid to Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, as well as to Dreamgirls, and they even take a quick stab at sending up Alfred Hitchcock film classic Psycho. (Forgive the groan-worthy pun. Blame it on Cary Gitter, who is a font of audience-pleasing double entendres, some of which, he told me, he updated from Fielding's nearly 300-year-old source material to reframe the vernacular for our 21st Century ears.)

The superlative cast is led by Josh Powell (as Parson Adams), Steven Telsey (Joseph Andrews), Maya Musial (Fanny), Liz Zazzi (Lady Booby and three other roles), and chameleon-like quick-change artist Jonathan Randell Silver, who, as if he doesn't have enough to do playing seven roles, also is the show's musical director and fight choreographer. He is an absolute gas to behold, as long as you don't get whiplash trying to keep track of where he is and in which guise at any given moment.

Steven Telsey and Maya Musial elevate their musical moments with gorgeous voices, and actors don't come more solid or versatile than Liz Zazzi and Josh Powell. All cast members belong to Actors Equity Association.

THE DIRECTOR AS STAR
When Silver isn't at the Yamaha electric piano providing musical accompaniment, you might see Telsey or Powell spelling him. In this splendid cast of five, the hyphenated talent just keeps on comin'. They all are stars.

Off stage, there's another star of The Virtuous Life of Joseph Andrews ... Joe Brancato, who not only directed with his usual mastery, but who conceived of the production, and has the smarts to employ top talent on stage and off to pull it off.

The headlong pace that keeps each energized beat on point and the clarity of what each character wants both testify to Gitter's disciplined and savvy playwriting skills.

What's also at work here is the disarmingly deft Brancato touch, which burnishes to a gleam everything unfolding on stage without ever letting the director's machinations show. Just like the finest acting occurs when the acting is not visible, so it is with the best directing not announcing itself on stage. Not an easy feat for any theater maestro. Joe Brancato's one of the best around.

No review of a Penguin Rep production is complete with acknowledgment of their stunning sets. For Joseph Andrews, the applause goes to scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader. Their utilitarian construct, with its wave-like wall nearly the width of the stage, efficiently creates ample performing space while providing a variety of entrance and exit paths for the actors. It also camouflages the electric piano in a church-style wood console that doubles as a hearth.

Kudos are due too to the fantastic period wardrobe adorning the cast, the work of costume designer Alyssa Ridder and wig designer Bobbie Zlotnik.

The fun the actors are having on stage is contagious. You could say both they and the audience are having a Fielding day at the theater. Even a reviewer feels impelled to get in on the action while finishing his assessment.

I so enjoyed this ebullient romp, which toys with circumstance and punctures pomp, but now I must bid adieu to you, for I have other ado to pursue. But hey, suffice to say, if live theater is your thing, and you do go to see this show, you're sure to revel in the fling.

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Joseph Andrews production team (from left) Executive Director Andrew M. Horn, composer Max Silverman, playwright and lyricist Cary Gitter, artistic director Joe Brancato. (Photo by Bruce Apar)




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