Review: A graceful and charming ‘Minister’s Wife’ at San Jose Rep

There is much to be said about grace and charm.

San Jose Repertorty Theatre’s production of “A Minister’s Wife,” conceived by and directed with graceful charm by Michael Halberstam, ditches anything resembling a spectacle and opts for warmth and texture in this wonderful one-act chamber musical that runs a taut 95 minutes.

The show, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida,” focuses on the central characters of James Mavor Morell (an intriguingly conflicted Christopher Vettel), his lovely wife Candida (beautifully balanced Sharon Rietkirk) and the young poet Eugene Marchbanks (angelic tenor Tim Homsley).  While the socialist reverend preaches on about King David and his dancing habits, Eugene has a great sense that Candida is locked in a boring marriage. He uses all his might and his poetry to try and win the affections of Candida. While both men are genuinely flawed in the ways of love and the needs of a companion, Candida must choose, and ultimately goes with the weaker of the two.

What works so well in this piece is the storytelling, with much of that credit going to theatre stalwart and film actor Austin Pendleton and his sharply crafted adaptation of the original script. Certainly, in a Victorian society, the males will dominate with equal parts brutishness and narrow-minded conviction. This is what makes Candida such a jewel. She is the first to remind the pious and the poet that a woman’s needs are not granted by default. For all the religion Morell shares with his congregation, it does not automatically turn him into the best husband ever. And just because Eugene can turn a phrase doesn’t mean he can warm a heart. It is the gentleness of Candida through the vessel that is Rietkirk, which is the heartbeat of the production.

The chamber musical style has its own flair, and extremely different than what you would get in a “My Fair Lady,” another Shaw adaptation. There are no track listings, and most of the music is free from rhymes. Despite the lack of convention, or even memorable songs, which might be hummed on the way out, the music is wonderfully sculpted. This is due to a wonderful pairing between composer Joshua Schmidt and lyricist Jan Levy Tranen. The music was carried out by a four-piece string-heavy orchestra, led by pianist/conductor Dolores Duran-Cefalu, and executed masterfully amongst the harmonic cast.

Other aspects of the piece were also quite wonderful. Liz Baltes as Miss Garnett and Jarrod Zimmerman’s Reverend Mill brilliantly added layers to the Victorian world, often adding great humor. And Collette Pollard’s dazzling scenic design, with so much detail into creating the reverend’s house, centered the production magnificently.

In addition to all the great things the show does, there is one other critical function of the show. On the wall of the reverend’s house sits a sign, which simply says, “You cannot serve both God and money.” With explorations of socialism, philanthropy and the role of God in our lives, “A Minister’s Wife” acts as a timeless examination of where we are, where we are going and our relationship to our community. What are our moral obligations to our fellow man? In the United States, a country where in many sectors socialism is a four-letter word, it is defined in this piece as a way to live for each other and love one another.

Candida (Sharon Rietkirk) is in the middle of two men vying for her affections - her husband Reverend Morell, center (Christopher Vettel) and the young poet Eugene Marchbanks (Tim Homsley) in San Jose Rep's production of "A Minister's Wife." (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Candida (Sharon Rietkirk) is in the middle of two men vying for her affections – her husband Reverend Morell, center (Christopher Vettel) and the young poet Eugene Marchbanks (Tim Homsley) in San Jose Rep’s production of “A Minister’s Wife.” (Photo by Kevin Berne)

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

San Jose Repertory Theatre presents “A Minister’s Wife”
Book by Austin Pendleton
Music by Joshua Schmidt
Lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen
Conceived and directed by Michael Halberstam
The Word: A show that functions on so many levels, but most importantly, is wonderful both on a storytelling and musical level.
Stars: 4 out of 4
Through July 14th
101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose, CA 95113
Tickets range from $29 – $74
For tickets, call (408) 367-7255 or visit www.sjrep.com

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