'A Minister's Wife' will win you over at GableStage

CORAL GABLES -- As I scanned the audience before a performance of GableStage's finely performed and executed production of "A Minister's Wife," a musical version of George Bernard Shaw's "Candida," on stage through April 24, I couldn't find any young people.

You know, that age demographic Bernie Sanders has won over in huge numbers and is likely the only chance the Independent Vernmont senator, a self-described "Democratic Socialist," has of besting front-runner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

Perhaps if these young people had heard about the GableStage production, knew Shaw's views (he was an unapologetic socialist) and that his play is the source material for "A Minister's Wife," they'd show up in droves as a kind of silent rally for their candidate. Surely he, his adherents and Shaw are/were supporters of the advancement of women and pro-Sanders folks would find much in "A Minister's Wife" to nod their head in agreement.

The head nodding would be in full session at the notion that a woman should be able to decide what qualities she wants in a husband. The nodding would continue during Shaw's (and musical book writer Austin Pendleton's) denouncement of the world during the play's setting (The London area of 1898 -- more than 200 years ago). The criticism sounds strikingly familiar to the shots taken at society today.

In the thought-provoking and heartfelt musical, Christian socialist minister The Rev. James Morell notes that when God made the world, "he saw that it was good.

"What would God say now?" Morell wonders aloud. "He'd say civilization is a disease."

Pride and envy are corrupting influences and the problem with the poor is poverty, the minister adds. And as embodied robustly by Jim Ballard, the reverend smiles with deep satisfaction and, with his hands clasped, he proclaims with a joyous conviction that socialism is the antidote.

Ballard's palpable emotional intensity helps GableStage's production of this chamber musical achieve yet another success.

The quintet of performers, clad in character-defining period costumes designed by Ellis Tillman, sing expressively, backed by a small but able live orchestra, are in sync as an ensmble and mostly bring vivid characterizations to their roles in this tale of a love triangle.

But with the source material originating with Shaw, a playwright of ideas, "A Minister's Wife" isn't just a simple story of a love triangle. It's a show touching on the plight of the poor and workers, the power of rhetoric, outer expressions of love vs that from the heart, the empowerment of women and Christian socialism (basically Christians who strongly denounce capitalism).

As he's done throughout his writing career, Shaw presents us with ideas -- viewpoints to ponder in addition to his signature sharp wit and lets us reach our own conclusions.

One could argue that either the reverend or the poet Eugene Marchbanks, the youthful, shy, awkward, but smitten with love rival for Candida, is worthy of the title character's 100 percent devotion.

Of course, to the preacher, Marchbanks must seem like a bug that, no matter what you do to shoo it away, seems resistant to the attempted method. He's been happily married to Candida and harbors no doubts that he's treated her reverently, sincerely and affectionately.

But Marchbanks has opinions of his own. Has Morell offered his wife true, sincere love from the heart or merely expressed devotion by using his oratorical powers supposedly as skillfully as he does in church?

The arrival of Marchbanks into Morell's home (designed spaciously, luxuriously, appealingly and realistically with period detail by Lyle Baskin and lit realistically by Jeff Quinn) sets the conflict in motion.

As portrayed by Ballard, there's a marked change in Morell's demeanor after Marchbanks' arrivial. In the beginning, Ballard's fast-paced movements and serious, business-like expression sugggest a clergyman with a hectic schedule, a man who receives many requests to speak to groups.

There may be stark differences in each group's stances, but Ballard notes he and the members of the groups are all related.

"We share the same father," he says, referring to the man upstairs.

While Morell's a busy man, he can't help but eagerly anticipate Candida's return home after a period away, as he reveals in the anticipatory, upbeat song "Candida's Coming Home." Ballard's Morell kisses his hand and places it on Candida's picture. It's a smart directorial choice by director Joseph Adler, conveying how much Candida means to Morell.

Adler's pacing ranges from rapid-paced in the beginning, reinforcing the busy lifestyle of the pastor to the slower paced scenes at the end, when the drama heightens as we wait to hear which man Candida will take as her husband.

As the minister, Ballard's conveys charm, a confidence that all's good with his world, including his love life, and a commanding, yet content presence.

But enter the competitor for Candida's affections, and this preacher, wiping sweat from his brow in a state of exasperation, becomes a man desperately trying to control himself from bursting like a blood vessel in the brain dangerously close to rupturing.

The threat to his equilibrium is the poetic Marchbanks. He's portrayed convincingly by Christian Vandepas as a tense, effeminate, awkward, yet dreamy young man who gains confidence and conviction as he grows to believe that Morell is all wrong for Candida. You can just picture movie star Tobey Maguire in this role.

Many actresses would probably salivate at the thought of playing the captivating Candida. The lucky one in this production is Laura Hodos, who invests the title character with charisma, confidence and a happy-go-lucky charm that makes it easy to see why both men would fall for her. Hodos' Candida also has a flair for humor, particularly when she asks whether she's supposed to choose one man or the other.

"Am I up for auction?" she asks each. "What do you bid?"

If Morell's typist, Miss; Prosperine Garnett, were up for bidding, she probably wouldn't fetch much, especially as portrayed by Leah Sessa. The actress clearly conveys that the character hails from a lower class, less polished background than the others. Sessa's Garnett has a dry wit, but there's an inauthenticity to the performance, which features seemingly forced, awkward facial expressions which turns the character into a caricature.

Shane Tanner rounds out the cast as a young, conviction-filled minister named Rev. Lexy Mill.

"A Minister's Wife" is faithful to Shaw's play, but there are differences. Absent from the musical is Candida's business-oriented father, Mr. Burgess, a man "offensive and contemptuous to people whose labor is cheap (and) respectful to wealth and rank," according to the play's stage directions. His absence places less concentration on Shaw's condemnation of capitalism, although there are critiques of it in the musical.

The songs help deepen the characters' emotions and enhance mood. But unlike in "My Fair Lady," the beloved musicalization of Shaw's "Pygmalion," these songs are arranged in short clips. A character will sing for several seconds before transitioning back to dialogue and then back to song. The longer musical numbers in "My Fair Lady" give us a fuller, deeper sense of an emotion a character's experiencing. Still, the music in "A Minister's Wife" (Joshua Schmidt composed it and Jan Levy Tranen wrote the lyrics) carries a sophistication and complexity that reminded me somewhat of Stephen Sondheim.

Miami-area theater goers have been treated to three geniuses of the theater recently, including the incomparable composer/lyricist Sondheim. They've also had the chance to take in a solid production of "The Piano Lesson" by the great August Wilson and now "A Minister's Wife," based on the witty, quotable, clever and socially-conscious Shaw.

As the South Florida sun becomes more intense, local theaters are shining a bright light on these artists and that's a great thing.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "A Minister's Wife."

WHEN: Through April 24

WHERE: GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.

For ticket information, call (305) 445-1119 or visit www.gablestage.org.