Bristol Riverside Theatre has been promoting its world-premiere musical adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals as Broadway-bound. It's too early to know whether the show will make that leap. But it's well worth catching this stylish and intelligent entertainment before it departs for loftier, higher-priced venues.
Sheridan's play, a 1775 comedy of manners descended from 17th-century Restoration comedies and replete with Shakespearean allusions, is a satire of the bourgeois pretensions and romantic affectations of its time. Its two pairs of young lovers seem incapable of straightforwardly embracing their feelings. Instead, they invent tests to validate their romances, almost ruining them instead.
The most famous character in The Rivals is the linguistically challenged Mrs. Malaprop, aunt and guardian to the ingénue Lydia Languish and the source of our word malapropism. "We will not anticipate the past" is one of her more felicitous pronouncements.
An aficionado of romance novels, Lydia is besotted with a near-penniless ensign, the disguise assumed by the well-born Capt. Jack Absolute to assay her sincerity. Meanwhile, Julia Melville, Lydia's cousin, has pledged herself to Faulkland, a man who can't seem to take yes for an answer. The lovers' troubles are compounded by a passel of servants and other suitors — the titular rivals.
For my money, Peter Kellogg's clever book and seamlessly integrated lyrics actually improve on the Sheridan, at least for modern audiences. While preserving much of the 18th-century language and humor, Kellogg has added farcical elements (four characters wooing Lydia from separate bedroom windows) and a late-life romance between Mrs. Malaprop (Tony Award winner Harriet Harris) and Sir Anthony Absolute, Jack's father (Drama Desk Award winner Ed Dixon).
Stephen Weiner's score is sophisticated and pretty, though without any obvious show-stoppers. He draws on Scottish airs (for the kilt-wearing Sir Lucius McTrigger — changed from Sheridan's Irish O'Trigger), operetta, and Broadway-style balladry.
Taking full advantage of the setting in fashionable Bath, England, Kellogg and director Eric Tucker have characters bathing in hot springs, drinking mineral water, and receiving a hot stone massage. Jason Simms' scenic design relies on constantly moving furniture, courtesy of both the characters and stagehands — a bit distracting, but in keeping with the airiness of the proceedings.
Attired in Lisa Zinni's period costumes and directed with precision and wit by Tucker (and musical director Steve Marzullo), the cast shines. As Mrs. Malaprop, a role expanded from the original, Harris is not simply a figure of fun, but a woman of a certain age who poignantly laments that "surely, I cannot be too old / for love to come again." Transcending caricature, she nevertheless squeezes every possible laugh from her linguistic pratfalls. Dixon's Sir Anthony, alternately bullying his son and succumbing to love's lures, is fully her match.
Jim Weitzer's Faulkland is another standout, defending himself in "I'm Not Too Sensitive" and later discoursing on how punctuation and conjunctions denote affairs of the heart ("I Love Her, But…"). Kevin Massey is an elegant Jack Absolute, Erin Mackey a charming Lydia. The loose-limbed Chris Dwan has a grand old time as an over-the-top Squire Bob Acres, one of Lydia's many suitors. You will, too.