If "My Fair Lady" is George Bernard Shaw writ large, "A Minister's Wife" is Shaw writ small.
Everything about the new musical based on the playwright's "Candida" seems pocket-sized, from the fragments of songs by Joshua Schmidt to the use of just four musicians to the boiling down of the Shavian story to about 90 minutes without intermission. Even the space where it has landed in New York — Lincoln Center's the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater — is intimate.
All that isn't a bad thing. A fantastic cast of just five, a single set and a book by Austin Pendleton that keeps much of the original playwright's wit makes "A Minister's Wife" a little jewel of a musical, though it may be an acquired taste.
Unlike "My Fair Lady," the big, brash musical with sumptuous songs based on Shaw's "Pygmalion," the new show that opened Sunday has an operatic whiff and wears its Kurt Weil influence well. That means some 20 songs, but not the toe-tapping quality of "I Could Have Danced All Night." Some tunes last only a few bars, some in four-part harmony. None exactly stick in one's head, but many are missed as soon as they end.
Schmidt, who also wrote the music to the well-regarded "Adding Machine," makes atmospheric, tantalizing, often atonal songs — more like appetizers than main courses. The actors often sing unaccompanied or in isolation to the melody emerging from the orchestra, adding voices that dip or climb on a dime.
Pendleton has stripped Shaw's three act play written in 1894 to its very core. It is the story of a love triangle between the Rev James Morell, a pompous Christian socialist; Candida, his strong and beautiful wife; and Eugene Marchbanks, an 18-year-old poet with a crush on Candida. It is Shaw at his most feminist, laying bare how embarrassingly boyish men will always be.
"I am up for auction, it seems," Candida tells her husband when the two rivals begin preparing to make their cases for her affection. "What do you bid, James?" Lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen push the story forward almost as swiftly as the script. "Though I shrink, I shrink from your brutal embrace/Though betrayed, betrayed by the tears on my face/I am not afraid of you," Marchbanks cries at one point.
Given the challenging music, a good cast is crucial and "A Minister's Wife" has one. A charismatic Marc Kudisch plays the blowhard Morell so well that it is hard to root against him, while Bobby Steggert portrays the simpering poet with a callowness that makes him a natural romantic rival to the reverend's solid masculinity. Kate Fry is warm and loving and exasperated as Cadida, perfectly cast as the object of so much affection. Two smaller parts — Drew Gehling and Liz Baltes as employees of the reverend — add another pair of excellent voices to the mix.
Keeping all this together is director Michael Halberstam, the artistic director and co-founder of the Writers' Theatre in Glencoe, Ill., where the musical made its world premiere. Halberstam manages to keep what is a domestic drama seem breakneck and universal.
A simple yet effective cluttered, book-laden set by Allen Moyer and formal, 19th-century costumes by David Zinn add to the appropriateness of the stripped-down tale. You might not dance all night, but there's something lush here even in its spareness.