The many worthy traits of Peter Kellogg and Stephen Weiner’s musical version of “The Rivals” are clouded by a need for sharper definition, including more targeted allegiance towards main characters, in the world premiere being mounted at Bristol Riverside Theater through November 18.
Colorful, quick-paced, often witty, and always ambitious, this tune-laden take on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic comedy of manners entertains, sometimes grandly, but it never rises above being amiably superficial.
The will to amuse is there. Performances, particularly by Harriet Harris, Chris Dwan, Emma Stratton, and Joe Veale, command attention. Kellogg and Weiner demonstrate where this show could go with a couple of songs that impress with their cleverness and originality. Jason A. Sparks knows how to have fun with individual choreography.
Despite those assets, director Eric Tucker, whose talent is obvious via his recent productions of “Hamlet” and “Saint Joan” at McCarter, has not, in this early going of “The Rivals,” established any reason to care about anything happening within the upper class Bath milieu the musical depicts. More damaging, lead characters, though well played by Kevin Massey, Erin Mackey, and Ed Dixon, do not register as anyone whose passions, intrigues, dilemmas, and legitimate affections matter. The musical sails on without making anyone’s plight so urgent or so ardent that you long for them to succeed.
Sprightliness has its place, but it can’t make up for lack of depth or even for satire that only takes hold when Harris, an actress with infinite and proven wiles, murders the English lexicon as the iconic Mrs. Malaprop.
Justifiably broad in keeping with the oversized tone of Tucker’s staging, Harris delights by tossing off Malaprop’s confused diction in an offhand, unwitting manner, only stressing the intentional comic errors when her character believes she is making a salient point. Harris makes you listen to her, then adds to her performance by establishing Mrs. Malaprop’s vanity and hauteur via looks, postures, and eyelash beatings that manage to be both subtle and exaggerated.
Harris’s castmates also do well. Acting is not the problem here. But until the writers and director create a more distinct edge for Sheridan’s story, more focus on key figures, and a way to bond the audience with the romantic fates of Jack Absolute and Lydia Languish among others, “The Rivals” will be all froth with no substance.
Though a world premiere, “The Rivals” has the marks of a work in progress, one, in spite of current wrinkles, that is worth continuing.
Providing more impact for characters is the place to start. Right now, the best delineated roles are those of the servants, Lucy and Thomas. Emma Stratton and Joe Veale give them a clear presence that allow them to ascend above the muddle the more crucial Jack and Lydia face, the single note given to Faulkland, and the wonder about why Bob Acres is even in the show.
Kevin Massey is a versatile Jack, shrewd in showing the character’s duplicity and attractively dashing as a man about town. He can bring “The Rivals” to a higher level but only if Kellogg’s book doesn’t take for granted Jack is the hero who ultimately deserves Lydia.
Tucker’s staging takes everything too fast. You hear Jack and Lydia are in love, but it’s never really shown. It’s a manifest destiny on paper but not on the Bristol stage.
Erin Mackey’s Lydia is an ultimate comic heroine. She truly loves Jack, or at the start of “The Rivals,” the man Jack is pretending to be to see if Lydia will love him for his charms and graces rather than his wealth and title. That love has to be fed and thwarted by the sentimentality Lydia inherits from reading romantic novels in which impoverished men or women gain status by marrying out of station.
Then, there are characters more perfunctory than useful. Jim Weitzer earns deserved laughs by making numerous entrances and frequent comments stating his character, Faulkland, is “sensitive.” The repetition is effective and Weitzer makes it into a signature. The hitch is the portrait stops there.
Julia, Sheridan’s reasonable character, should try to help Faulkland get through his doubts and delusions, but Kellogg doesn’t know how to use her, and in the Bristol production, Charlotte Maltby is given a wig that dominates her character more than her dialogue does.
Worst is the waste of Bob Acres. Harriet Harris’s biggest rival for best of cast is Chris Dwan, a bundle of energy and comic gifts who jigs and gambols enthusiastically and plays a decided fop without overdoing it. Yet, Acres seems to have no place in this “Rivals.”
Better established and more effectively comic, though peripheral, is John Treacy Egan’s lusty and funny Lucius McTrigger. Egan, big-voiced and stage-dominating, does a great job. But, once more, he presents no real danger or angst.
Some structural parts of this “Rivals” also need work. The opening number, “No Place Like Bath,” is lively but seems slapdash and derivative rather than a piece that sets a scene, introduces characters, and makes a point.
Kellogg and Weiner show true mettle in other numbers that show wit and have spring to them, such as Julia’s wonderful “Up to Here,” Faulkland’s “I Love Her…But,” Malaprop’s “On a Day as Lovely as Today,” Acres’ “When I Slay My Rival,” and the women’s quartet, “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own.”
Weiner’s music takes on verve and newness in these songs. The composer’s tunes are always pleasant but often more brisk and jaunty than ear-catching or memorable. Kellogg’s lyrics can be smart and pointed, as in “Up to Here,” but sometimes just get a story out in too declarative a manner.
Tucker’s staging is at time curious. Seeing stagehand moving set pieces and having a stuffed animal be thrown from the wings seems more expedient than artistic. The changes of furniture got in the way more often than they fascinated or delighted.
Lisa Zinni’s costumes are among the wittier and most spot-on parts of the production. Joe Doran’s deft lighting is at times like a character of its own.
The Rivals, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, November 18. $46 to $53. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.