‘A Minister’s Wife’ opens Off-Broadway

“A Minster’s Wife” in the 2009 Writers’ Theatre production (left) and at Lincoln Center (right).

In my list of top shows for 2009, I ranked Writers’ Theatre’s A Minster’s Wife as #1. From Kate Fry’s enchanting leading-lady performance to Liz Baltes as the bitter second banana (for which she won a Jeff award) to Joshua Schmidt’s rapturous score — this was a show that has stayed in my brain for some time.

Thankfully, in the Great White Way’s continued obsession with bringing Chicago theatre to the insular island of Manhattan, Lincoln Center has re-created this winning production at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Better yet, they brought along for the ride Writers’ Theatre artistic director Michael Halberstam to direct the piece and Chicago actress Kate Fry to recreate her stellar work as Candida.

The show opened last night to critics, and Charles Isherwood gave it a very supportive review, calling the cast “splendid” and describing Fry’s performance as “portrayed with quiet warmth.”

From Isherwood’s review:

Although it is scored for just a handful of instruments, with piano and cello dominant, Mr. Schmidt’s music has ample texture and variety. The show is not through-composed, but the score weaves itself in and out of the drama so gently that the seams rarely show. The musical language sometimes takes on a waltzing lilt in ensemble songs that evoke the scintillating Stephen Sondheim score for “A Little Night Music,” but Mr. Schmidt often uses spikier, more dissonant colorings when Eugene’s tense misery is doing combat with James’s increasingly ruffled complacency. Even when the characters are not singing, a few somber notes from the cello or a sprinkling of piano arpeggios give us subtle intimations of the inner turbulence in their souls.

No surprise here. What does surprise me is how dismissive the theatre chatterati are of the show on sites like Talkin’ Broadway. Some even have posted that they’ve slept through it or left angry because of “how boring” it was.

Sorry, there aren’t any riffing witches on cherry pickers or gospel singing nuns in bedazzled habits. You may actually have to concentrate for longer than three minutes at a time and be without spectacle, mid-song key changes or neat buttons at ends of tunes to cue applause.

Congrats to the team at Writers’ Theatre for a successful Off-Broadway opening of a smart, mature chamber musical. With all the attention this Glencoe-based theatre is getting these past few years, maybe it’ll be a contender for a sixth Chicago-area regional theatre Tony Award.

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