E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View now comes to glorious musical comedy life at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in a World Premiere adaptation by Jeffrey Stock and Marc Acito.

  Art-house buffs will of course recall A Room With A View from its 1985 filmization by Ismael Merchant and James Ivory. Who can forget a very young Helena Bonham-Carter as the Edwardian heroine Lucy Honeychurch, on holiday in Italy with her middle-aged cousin-slash-traveling companion Charlotte, brought to starchy screen life by Maggie Smith? Who can forget Charlotte’s conniption on discovering that the titular room (with a view of Florence) that the pair had been promised had no view at all, a situation soon rectified by a certain Mr. Emerson and his handsome son George, more than willing to swap rooms with their fellow Brits? Who can forget George and Lucy’s passionate kiss in a field full of barley, a kiss that awakens Lucy to the possibility of something other than marriage to her prim and proper fiancé Cecil Vyse?

All these moments and more come to life on the Old Globe stage, and if the accent in this musical comedy adaptation falls more squarely on the comedic than in the Merchant-Ivory film, well purists be damned. This reviewer found the comedic elements (including casting the actors who play Lucy’s brother George and her fiancé as a pair of elderly spinster sisters) every bit as satisfying as its romantic aspects, which are romantic indeed. And for those who wonder if the film’s infamous pond scene remains, the answer is yes, in an inspired sequence that manages to meld an era-appropriate Ragtime ditty called “Splash” with a mostly from-the-rear view of the male nudity that has made the film a favorite gay rental.  (The older ladies seated behind this reviewer were equally tickled.)

Stock’s melodies are at times reminiscent of the gorgeously complex tunes Adam Guettel wrote for the similarly set The Light In The Piazza, and never more so than when Jacquelynne Fontaine and Glenn Seven Allen, playing all of the musical’s Italians, raise their operatic voices in aria-like splendor.

  Still, although both Room With A View and Light In The Piazza share themes and setting, Acito’s book and Stock’s songs (two of which feature Acito’s lyrics) are considerably lighter than Piazza’s, and performances follow suit, delightful all around under the sprightly and spirited directorial hand of Scott Schwartz.

The film’s brunette Lucy and blond George (a young Julian Sands on celluloid) are reversed here, the roles played by the enchanting golden-tressed Ephie Aardema and dark-haired O.C. native Kyle Harris, even more irresistible here than he was in the recent West Side Story tour, both performers sharing equally fine vocal chops. Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning Broadway star (and Old Globe favorite) Karen Ziemba has a field day following in Maggie Smith’s footsteps as the delectably prudish Charlotte, whom Stock gives an eleventh hour showstopper, “Frozen Charlotte,” with which, as they say, Ziemba brings down the house.

There’s not a weak link in the Old Globe cast, and though none come from our rich West Coast-based talent pool, San Diegans will recall Will Reynolds (Cecil Vyse) as Frank Churchill in last year’s Jane Austen’s Emma. Reynolds’ Cecil is such a perfectly stuffy twit that one forgets how “impossibly handsome” (my words in describing his Frank Churchill) the actor is. (The same was true, movie fans will recall, for the film’s Daniel Day-Lewis.) An adorably winning Etai BenShlomo is Lucy’s irrepressible younger brother Freddy, who along with Reynolds gets to do some hilarious men-in-drag bits, Reynolds as Miss Alan and and BenSchlomo as The Other Miss Alan. Edward Staudenmayer is terrific as the oh-so-proper Reverend Mr. Beebe, who shows a different side of himself (and a quick bit of his front) in “Splash.” Gina Ferrall shines in the plum dual roles of outspoken novelist Eleanor Lavish and fluttery Mrs. Honeychurch. Kurt Zischke completes the ensemble in splendid fashion as George’s garrulous father Mr. Emerson, who sets the story in motion when he insists on the abovementioned room switch.

  Music director Boko Suzuki elicits stellar vocal work from his cast, particularly in songs which have numerous characters singing in harmony or counterpoint, along with conducting the production’s sensational thirteen-piece orchestra. (If only there were a cast recording of Stock’s songs, there being nothing more frustrating for a musical theater lover than to see a brand new show and have only the memory of a single listen to take home with him.)

Heidi Ettinger’s postcard-inspired scenic design is beautiful and highly original, never more so than when the entire stage is filled with purple flowers for George and Lucy’s first kiss. (The pool in which the boys splash is pretty spiffy as well.) David Lander’s gorgeous lighting design replicates both the golden Italian sun and its cooler British version. Judith Dolan’s period costumes bring to life the tail end of early 20th Century floor-length dresses and their elegant male counterparts. Jan Weston’s impeccable sound design, Bruce Coughlin’s lush orchestrations, Stock’s equally rich musical arrangements, and Michael Jenkinson’s imaginative musical staging add to the production’s grand look and sound. Jan Gist is vocal and dialect coach. Anjee Nero is stage manager.

A Room With A View continues an Old Globe tradition of Broadway-bound World Premiere musicals like The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Like its predecessors, it is a captivating treat from start to finish.

Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
March 18, 2012
Photos: Henry Di Rocco

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