It's hard not to fall in love with "A Minister's Wife."
Conceived and directed by Michael Halberstam, this enchanting musical version of George Bernard Shaw's "Candida" has the audience smitten within minutes. Joshua Schmidt's delicate music and Jan Levy Tranen's smart lyrics capture both the intellectual and the romantic allure of this heady love triangle.
Make no mistake, this is a lovely 100-minute gem of a chamber musical that bears little resemblance to the brash spectacles of which Broadway is so fond. But its intimacy and nuance are definitely part of its charm. Exquisitely calibrated by Halberstam in its West Coast premiere at San Jose Rep, "Wife" captures the untamed yearnings of the heart.
The richly layered score perfectly captures this universe of unrequited longing and existential regret. The intricate melodies set this drama of ideas alight, weaving warmth and yearning into intellectual battles that might otherwise seem dry.
Shaw, who despised bourgeois convention, created a household of souls stirred by passions they can't stifle. The playwright intended a "counter blast to Ibsen's 'Doll's House,' " because here it is the men who are the dolls. Austin Pendleton's elegant book nails the tone of the original text while letting the music breathe on its own.
This is a love triangle where everyone loses one thing to gain another. No sooner does the winsome Candida (Sharon Rietkerk) return home to London to spend a few precious hours with her husband, the upstanding reverend (Christopher Vettel) than he rushes out the door to tend to his flock. A firebrand socialist preacher, he believes he must save the world from the evils of capitalism. While he is at first only too pleased that their young friend Eugene Marchbanks (Tim Homsley) is willing to keep her company, this man of the cloth soon comes to realize that there is a fierce battle being waged for love and loyalty and he is not as strong a warrior as he thinks.
Their romantic struggle is echoed by those outside the triangle as well, such as the minister's tightly wound secretary Prossy (Liz Baltes) and his toadying assistant Lexy (Jarrod Zimmerman). Each feels deeply for someone they shouldn't so they bury their attraction in Victorian propriety.
Rietkerk glows in the title role, giving Candida both wit and sparkle. While this character is famously elusive, Rietkerk fleshes out the motivations leading to her heart-melting final choice in "I Am to Choose, Am I?" and "Spoiled from the Cradle."
Vettel is magnetic as the complacent vicar who courts his parishioners more passionately than his wife. Staunch in his beliefs about the world, he never suspects that others might be swayed by emotion.
Homsley takes a few beats to find his stride as the pouty Marchbanks, the boyish poet who pitches woo while the minister's back is turned, but he beautifully embodies the smugness of youth.
Baltes, who performed in the show's original staging, gives Prossy just the right mixture of fussiness and fire. Her tipsy aria to "Champagne" is a delight.
The text and music are so deftly interwoven that you barely notice the segues between moments of dialogue and song. The musicians are also seated onstage so that every piercing chord hits home.
The standoffs between these three lovebirds are as explosive as the show's ending is ambiguous. Part of the allure of the piece is that nothing is ever simple when it comes to feelings. Unlike that more famous musical based on a Shaw classic, "My Fair Lady," this show revels in its wistfulness. There is always a note of doubt lingering in the air which makes this waltz all the more bittersweet.
'A MINISTER'S WIFE'
Book by Austin Pendleton, music by Joshua Schmidt, lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen; based on Shaw's "Candida"
Through: July 14
Where: San Jose Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $29-$74, 408-367-7255. www.sjrep.org