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Theater review: 'A Room With a View' at the Old Globe

March 16, 2012 |  3:13 pm

A room with a view

E.M. Forster knew how to weave a narrative spell as well as any 20th century English novelist. He was the master of building romantic suspense out of psychological repression. His most famous dictum, “Only connect,” is routinely shown to be much harder in good English society than it sounds.

The moviemaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory had great success in mining Forster's oeuvre for lavish epics that couldn't get enough of those grand manors, rolling lawns, prep-school haircuts and fancy tea services. The stage can't compete on the same pictorial front, but plots this well devised and characters this richly distinctive are too valuable a resource to pass up. Which brings us to “A Room With a View,” the rather rudimentary musical version of Forster's 1908 novel that's having its world premiere at the Old Globe.

With music and lyrics by Jeffrey Stock (“Triumph of Love”) and a book by novelist and playwright Marc Acito (who also contributed additional lyrics), the show attempts in as straightforward a manner as possible to translate the novel from the page to the singing stage. This tale of a young English woman's awakening in Florence to the glories of art, love and unruly human nature is efficiently synopsized by Acito. The songs by Stock carefully set up the characters while briskly advancing the action. But the work doesn't pulse with genuine passion — it has the feeling of a commissioned exercise that's competently yet unimaginatively pulled off.

A room with a view 11The production, directed by Scott Schwartz, approaches the work as broad comedy, but broad comedy without much laughter. There are moments when it almost seems as though the show is heading toward a Charles Ludlam-style parody. Two traveling spinster sisters are played in drag and the operatic gesturing of the cast (arms outstretched in widening arcs to illustrate great feelings in song) is completely over the top. But the show takes itself seriously even when it appears to be goofing off.

Ephie Aardema portrays Lucy Honeychurch, the novel's heroine, as a slightly pert, slightly ditsy middle-class girl reluctant to grow up despite a temperament that's as willful as it is ardent. Don't expect the moody interior life that Helena Bonham Carter brought to the movie role.Aardema doesn't permit a reflective silence to pass between her character and her lines. And how can she when she's required to perform such silly numbers as “Ludwig and I,” the song she sings while supposedly playing a soul-stirring Beethoven composition at her Italian pensione?

Karen Ziemba is Charlotte Bartlett, Lucy's chaperon on an Italian holiday that's designed to educate the sensibility of this sheltered yet curious English rose before her marriage to the snobby aesthete Cecil Vyse (Will Reynolds). Ziemba, a capable, Tony-winning veteran, is at a decided disadvantage here, having to compete with the memory of the one-and-only Maggie Smith, who had such a field day with the movie role looking alarmed at the seductive dangers befalling her young charge. Ziemba offers a clean, robustly sung performance, but the production doesn't afford the textured comedy or sentiment for anything more memorable. (The title of her big number, “Frozen Charlotte,” gives you a sense of the lackluster material she has to work with.)

One oddity of this stage version is that the contrast between stiff, intolerant Cecil and George (Kyle Harris), the freethinking Englishman Lucy meets in Florence with his radical humanist father, Mr. Emerson (Kurt Zischke), is less drawn out than one would have expected. The wealthy Cecil may have no interest in badminton or humorous songs, but he doesn't seem like such a ludicrous choice for Lucy. Harris' George is certainly more appealing, though one never gets the sense that if Lucy doesn't succumb to his romantic entreaties her future happiness will be forever ruined.

Heidi Ettinger's scenic design is as basic as the show's musical-theater craft. The stage is ringed with postcard images of majestic Tuscany and well-manicured England, where the action moves in the second half when the characters all gather at Lucy's family home, presided over by her widowed mother (Gina Ferrall). The production wisely chooses not to elaborately fill in the picture, but unfortunately the frame is clichéd.

Stock's music has a pastoral elegance that is pleasing, if evanescently so. The lyrics, when not engaging in clumsy wordplay, are more banal.

What's ultimately missing from this theatrical experience is any sense of surprise. Even the frolicsome scene in which Lucy's brother (Etai BenShlomo) invites George and the always at hand Rev. Mr. Beeber (Edward Staudenmayer) to go skinny-dipping in a pond near his home seems a wan retread of the movie's handling of this innocent sensuality.

“A Room With a View” may provide the Old Globe with a box-office hit akin to last year's “Jane Austen's Emma — A Musical Romantic Comedy,” but artistically it doesn't reach beyond that middling mark. Compared with “The Light in the Piazza,” another Italian holiday musical inspired from literature, this Forster adaptation seems incorrigibly bland. 


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-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

"A Room With a View," The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 15. Tickets start at $39. (619) 234-5623. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Photos: Upper: (from left) Edward Staudenmayer as Reverend Mr. Beeber, Etai BenShlomo as Freddy Honeychurch and Kyle Harris as George Emerson. Lower: (from left) Kyle Harris as George Emerson, Karen Ziemba as Charlotte Bartlett and Ephie Aardema as Lucy Honeychurch. Credit: Henry DiRocco