A Minister’s Wife

by Robert Bullen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday June 19, 2009

Kate Fry as Candida Morell and Kevin Gudahl as Reverend James Morell.
Kate Fry as Candida Morell and Kevin Gudahl as Reverend James Morell.   

Upon conclusion of the world premiere of A Minister's Wife,"I wanted to stand on something tall and stately to declare, "The modern musical is alive and well!"

Yes, while it's all fine and good to have Hairsprays, Legally Blondes and Jersey Boys, it's reassuring to know that beautifully intricate theatre songs can be used to support an adult storyline. Joshua Schmidt proves this by setting George Bernard Shaw's timeless and beguiling play, Candida, to a rapturous new score. This jewel box of a musical is rounded out with lyrics by Jan Tranen and book by Austin Pendleton.

Ok. Maybe I'm being a bit much. It's just exciting to discover a new musical theatre voice in Schmidt, who made a name for himself with The Adding Machine, which also premiered in the Chicago area in 2007 and later transferred off-Broadway to strong reviews. (Let's hope A Minister's Wife has a life beyond Writers' Theatre's stunning production.)

In Wife, Schmidt delivers an enchanting, lilting score, with phrases that waltz in and out of the action. While I did long for a bit more musical cohesion, this is only a quibble. Richard Carsey provides excellent musical direction to the tight quintet of strings, woodwind and piano. However, I do wish these talented musicians weren't sequestered behind the scenery, as their sound was muffled.

A Minister's Wife tells the tale of Reverend James Morell (a stoic, robust Kevin Gudahl) and his wife, Candida (a winning Kate Fry), who seem happily married. However, a young, hypersensitive poet, Eugene, played by the energetic Alan Schmuckler (who resembles a young Robin Williams combined with the impish features of Elijah Wood), sets things spinning when he confronts the Reverend and expresses his love for Candida.

Morell and Eugene duel it out with verbal power play, both certain they are the best match for Candida. At the end, Candida requires them both to argue their defense (in song, of course) for being hers before her final choosing.

Writers' Theatre delivers a delightful, shimmering production accompanied by a beautifully understated score.

As played by Fry, Candida holds all the cards. Not one to be bartered over, she makes the men work for her affection. It's a great role, to which Fry brings intelligence, cunning, poise and warmth.

Director Michael Halberstam, who also conceived the piece, keeps the action simple and direct, smartly containing the action to a 95-minute one act. I've never seen Shaw's Candida, however Halberstam notes that the title character is missing from action for most of the original play. In adapting the story for the musical, Halberstam and Pendleton brought Candida back into the action, which is smart, as any opportunity to maximize the fantastic Kate Fry's onstage time is a good move in my book.

In the supporting parts, Liz Baltes as the buttoned up assistant to Reverend Morell, Proserpine - or "Prossy" as the Reverend calls her - steals all her scenes. Her secret affection for Morell adds an interesting and comical twist to the love triangle. And John Sanders as Reverend Alexander draws additional laughs as Morell's clumsy younger colleague.

It's a wonderful ensemble. The only minor misstep for me was Schmuckler in the pivotal role as the young poet. His delivery and style seems too contemporary. And never did I detect any chemistry between him and Fry, making me question what Candida saw in Eugene beyond an afternoon lark.

That said, Writers' Theatre delivers a delightful, shimmering production accompanied by a beautifully understated score.

A Minister's Wife is having its World Premiere at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe, IL, and runs through July 19. For more information, visit .

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at chitheatreaddict.com