Kate Fry and Marc Kudisch in A Minister's Wife
(© Paul Kolnik)
Kate Fry and Marc Kudisch in A Minister's Wife
(© Paul Kolnik)
A Minister's Wife, now playing in Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, puts a musical spin on George Bernard Shaw's Candida that is so uncompromising in its execution that theatergoers cannot help but be admiring. Indeed, one imagines that Shaw himself would be pleased with the work of its creators.

The play explores a tumultuous day in the life of socialist minister Rev. James Mavor Morell (Marc Kudisch), who, along with his wife Candida (Kate Fry), copes with the infatuation that the 18-year-old poet Eugene Marchbanks (Bobby Steggert) has for this older woman.

In musicalizing the work Joshua Schmidt has written a score that concurrently mirrors the quixotic intricacies of Shavian dialogue, beginning in one place and ending somewhere else, while embracing sounds of the late 19th- century period in which the action unfolds.

There are times when the music can sound like the liturgical music that might accompany one of Morell's sermons, and at other times, theatergoers' minds are drawn to the lighter sort of tunes that might come from British music hall. Perhaps most impressive is the way in which Schmidt's work evokes the industrialism against which Morell can rage. In Schmidt's staccato, art-song edginess, one almost hears London factories churning away.

The score, which also communicates the characters' deep emotions, is certainly not an easy one for artists to perform. The music intersects and interrupts Shaw's original (which has been shrewdly pared down and reshaped by bookwriter Austin Pendleton and is heard in Jan Levy Tranen's lyrics) and the melodic lines can have a tricky art song-like quality. And yet, at each turn, the cast, guided surehandedly by director Michael Halberstam, never wavers vocally, even as they bring the story and characters into sharp focus.

Kudisch imbues Morell with a charismatic bombast and arrogance that makes audiences understand why Morell's typist, Miss Prosperpine Garnett (Liz Baltes), and his female congregants are drawn to him and why he has inspired the unswerving confidence of his curate, Rev. Alexander Mill (Drew Gehling). Simultaneously, Kudisch communicates Morell's deeply felt affection for Candida and the surprising softness and gentleness that lies within the character.

As his just-barely-of-age rival, Steggert proves to be an absolute delight, perfectly capturing Marchbanks' tender insecurities and aggressive tenaciousness that goes hand-in-hand with youth. One never doubts the sincerity of Marchbanks' affection for Candida, even when he reaches hyperbolic heights denouncing the sorts of chores she undertakes in the household. Nor do theatergoers ever wonder why the couple first befriended this clearly intelligent young man, who in a less accomplished turn might become simply a callow puppy dog.

Similarly, audiences never question why both of these men are drawn to Fry's Candida. Fry, who also played the role in the show's Chicago premiere, delivers a first-rate performance of glimmering poise and shining intellect that's mixed with a certain earthiness. These qualities combine to create the perfect Shavian heroine: a woman who is concurrently maternal and sister-like, and yet romantically alluring.