Last summer, Dan Solomon, Robert Faires, and I voiced our thoughts on the state of musical theatre in Austin. We concluded that the best of the genre in our town is intimate and spectacular, but the talent pool is limited, and we don't usually see new musicals. Penfold Theatre's regional premiere of A Minister's Wife, the new musical version of George Bernard Shaw's 1898 play Candida, more than exceeds these expectations. It's not too big – there are no 10-minute tap solos, nor does it require 85 glitzy costumes. And it's not too small – Joshua Schmidt's unconventional and challenging score, Jan Levy Tranen's lyrics, and Austin Pendleton's book (which sticks close to Shaw) demand performers who are both vocally gifted and able to locate emotional depth in their characters.
A Minister's Wife is exactly the right size for Austin. The snug Trinity Street Playhouse and a detailed set by Jeff Cunningham give us the illusion that we're in a Victorian sitting room, and the cast, most of whom are accustomed to larger stages, practically revel in the nuance this space affords. They need no microphones or sweeping gestures to convey the seething jealousy, quiet rage, and tender love in this "sung play," as director Michael McKelvey calls it. The show was performed to great acclaim two years ago at Lincoln Center, but Schmidt's exquisite, densely layered songs feel as though they were built for this 90-seat black box.
McKelvey has assembled some of the finest musical theatre actors in town, and the impeccable direction for which he is known shines through them. Greg Holt and Jill Blackwood star as James and Candida Morell, the minister and his wife; Andrew Cannata, who gives Martin Burke a run for his money for the title "Austin's favorite actor," intrudes as lovesick young poet Marchbanks; and Amy Downing and Nathan Jerkins provide quick-witted bursts of humor as the reverend's diametrically opposed secretary and curate. Blackwood is unspeakably charming, and it's easy to believe what Morell says about her when Marchbanks insists that he loves Candida better than her husband ever could: "Everybody loves her. They can't help it. I like it."
Holt and Cannata are well-matched competitors, such that if you didn't already know who Candida chooses in the end, you'd be hard-pressed to predict the victor. Holt is dogmatic, yet irresistible, with a twinkle in his eye and a slight growl in his voice; Cannata counters as a rash and romantic youth, and slips almost imperceptibly from speaking to singing in his bell-clear voice. With these stellar performances in such an intimate space, this uncommonly beautiful new musical represents everything great about Austin theatre. Audiences, I imagine, won't be able to help themselves from loving A Minister's Wife.
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