A CHARMING MUSICAL WITHOUT A VIEW
Theatre lore maintains that creating a successful new musical for the stage is more difficult and trying than creating peace in the Middle East. Noticing the deficiencies is easy; fixing the flaws can lead to a nervous breakdown. Jeffrey Stock and Marc Acito teeter between enjoyably simplistic and disconcertingly bland in their chamber musical adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View: while there is some fun to be had at the Old Globe, the songwriting weaknesses and a glaring structural deficiency will most certainly keep the show from venturing beyond San Diego. The flaws can be fixed, but director Scott Schwartz (son of composer Stephen) needs to take this promising premise and return to square one.
Bookwriter Acito (who also contributed some lyrics) has actually succeeded where most librettists fail: his straightforward reworking of the novel is beguiling and intelligent and the songs are placed in the right spots. Unfortunately, the songs are frustratingly unexceptional. Stock ran into the exact same problem with his Triumph of Love (1997, Broadway, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead), another chamber musical with a delightful book that had character development and exposition in the songs, but uninspiring and mostly unremarkable melodies. Stock’s songs in View are not only inconspicuous, but occasionally derivative (Light in the Piazza and Ragtime come to mind). Both writers are on the right track, as the audience was clearly allowing the production to err on the side of enjoyment. Old Globe patrons will no doubt flock to this musical, but there is no future unless Schwartz can properly hone his vision of the show, the biggest issue being his ambivalent addition of farce that turns out to be silly, not funny (a clumsy, drunk maid and old spinsters played by men in drag are examples).
The 1908 story concerns the romantic imbroglios of the respectable young Englishwoman Lucy Honeychuch (Ephie Aardema); while on vacation in Florence, Italy in Act I, Lucy falls for the radical philosopher George Emerson (Kyle Harris), even under the steely eye of her governess and much older cousin Charlotte Bartlett (Karen Ziemba). In Act II, Lucy is back home in Surrey, betrothed to the uptight Cecil Vyse (Will Reynolds), who has coincidentally arranged for George and his father Mr. Emerson (Kurt Zischke) to reside in an empty cottage nearby.
Forster’s driving narrative further comments on Edwardian England’s psychological repression with the disrobing of Lucy’s fun- and Ragtime-loving brother Freddy (Etai BenShlomo) and the stuffy Reverend Mr. Beeber (Edward Staudenmayer), who jump into a pond with the equally-stripped George, a scene made famous in the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation (1986), and one which will please San Diego audiences to no end when three naked actors actually splash into a pool of water on stage at the Old Globe.
This air of liberation in the story leads to the unraveling of Charlotte and Lucy’s lies about George’s stolen kiss with Lucy while in Italy; a kiss which ultimately forces Lucy to resolve her contradictory yearnings.
This leads to another problem, as evidenced by the eleven o’clock number, “Frozen Charlotte,” sung with impeccable professionalism by Tony-winner Ziemba. Not only is Charlotte’s disrobing of her resolute façade given a flat tune, but it proves that the creators forgot that the show must be about Lucy’s journey, not Charlotte.
Based on Heidi Ettinger’s set design, which frames the show in picture postcards of Tuscany and a picturesque English hamlet, the creators opt for snapshots of the characters involved, rarely delving into the deeper psychology of the characters and their complex relationships (Sondheim, where art thou?).
A Room with a View has been adapted for the stage in various play versions, but for this musical to soar, it either needs a different composer or Stock himself may need to musically probe the subject matter in an operatic style; his use of chamber opera with the Italian caretakers of the pensione in Act I are lavishly promising, especially as powerfully vocalized by the sexy and astounding Jacquelynne Fontaine and Glenn Seven Allen.
As it stands, the musical, like Charlotte and Lucy’s room in Tuscany, may be in the right place, but needs to change its view.
photos by Henry DiRocco
A Room With a View
The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego
scheduled to end on April 15
for tickets, call (619) 23-GLOBE or visit http://www.theoldglobe.org