Somehow I’ve made it through life as double English and Drama major, audience member and longtime theater participant without ever having seen or read a version of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. While possibly shocking, this is really neither here nor there since Shaw wrote a play and not a musical and certainly not a modern opera, which is what San Jose Repertory Theatre has seemingly produced with its current show, A Minister’s Wife.
Now, perhaps I’m just not as fond of musicals or sophisticated enough musically to enjoy this production. Or perhaps, there’s just a part of me that’s too independent for this play’s fundamental plot. I admit, it is entirely possible that I’m disadvantaged from the get go as a result of never having been forced to “choose” between two mediocre men but rather am free to choose two impeccably perfect and utterly charming, three-legged cats instead. That being said, I’ve suspended belief many a time and overcome my musical prejudices before, coming out on the other end a fan of “old-fashioned” or “musical” pieces. But watching a Minister’s Wife, I kept coming back to the question, why?
Let’s first hand out the merits. A++ for the live chamber music which seamlessly and emotionally supports the piece. Both sensitive and rich, subtle yet strong, the 4 piece orchestra’s balance was perfect and it complimented the set and use of space very well. No complaint with the talent either. The voices were experienced and skilled and I particularly enjoyed Candida and Eugene, who seemed to make the best of what I struggled to comprehend.
What I couldn’t wrap my head around at all was the actual benefit of the text being turned into songs. Aside from well-trained voices, this really didn’t seem a case of ideas or phrases being made clearer or emotions being made stronger by being sung no matter how nicely they were performed.
The best musicals can make you forget about the ridiculousness of bursting into song in the middle of a conversation and can add a layer of subconscious depth to the piece overall. Well-written songs in a well thought out musical, present a window into the inner most thoughts of a character. They help move the plot forward. At the very least they are pretty or funny and you leave humming them. I didn’t experience any of these consistently.
The songs seem to come from a contrived place. Phrases that could be uttered once and make sense when made into a modern opera, repeated over and over seemed overly dramatic and just out-of-place. It seemed like dialogue was turned into inappropriate vocal monologues, stranding others on stage to not interrupt or react in any sort of realistic way. What was 90 minutes with no intermission probably could have been effectively told in an hour had it not been for all the choruses and motif.
There were (and I have no idea if it was original or new text) fantastic gems of philosophy and poetry within the spoke script and a few of them made it into the songs. A bit of humor too which often times mimicked my own feelings about a particular predicament or speech. I “thanked” several characters for eventually saying exactly what I was thinking 10 minutes prior. But, while the comic moments REALLY shined (I wished there were more of them) I couldn’t help feel totally depressed that the men in this were so extreme and unappealing. Yes, I wager that was the point, but I was so confused and turned off by the use of songs and then ½ the characters being bores, that I couldn’t even sympathize with our heroine. To be honest, I don’t even know if we were supposed to sympathize.
What can I say? This play will probably make you happy you are with who you are with (or not with). It may spur a short conversation about socialism, feminism or religion. But really, you’ll like the songs or you won’t and I wager THAT will drive how you feel about this show. For me, a slightly disappointing 3 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a show that I would have liked to see on that stage, with that cast, but maybe without the songs. A Minister’s Wife plays through July 14th at the San Jose Repertory Theatre in Downtown San Jose.