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An Enchanted April

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 4, 2019

Christiana Cole and Leah Hocking
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Elizabeth von Arnim's 1922 novel The Enchanted April has been adapted twice for film (1935 and 1991) and at least twice as a non-musical play. With its focus on romance, friendship, and comical misunderstandings, the material would seem to lend itself perfectly to musicalization. Now playing at Theatre Row, An Enchanted April, as the current musical adaptation is titled, mostly succeeds in capturing the sense of longing, burgeoning camaraderie, and emotional transformation interwoven through the original source material. And for audience members familiar with the previous versions, the musical offers a pleasant return to San Salvatore, the Italian castle that the characters lease for their spring getaway.

An Enchanted April begins, as the novel does, with Lotty Wilkins (Leah Hocking), an overworked and underappreciated solicitor's wife, reading a newspaper in a London women's club on a rainy February day. While listlessly combing through the paper, she comes across the 1920s equivalent of an Airbnb listing for a medieval castle in Tuscany. Although they have just met, she convinces fellow club-member, Rose Arbuthnot (Christiana Cole), to join her.

Rose is also unhappy in her marriage, and she believes the time away from her husband Frederick (Aaron Phillips) might ease some of the strain in their relationship. Rose and Lottie post a notice for other women to share the costs, and they attract the interest of two women who are also weary of life and London, a feeling described in the plaintive quartet, "Endless Rain."

First, there is Mrs. Fisher (Alma Cuervo), a sardonic widow in her 60s, who has become hardened after decades in a loveless marriage. Rounding out the vacationers is Lady Caroline Dester (Gena Sims), a young socialite who served as a war nurse and is now expected to marry a man she does not love. She relies on alcohol to help battle the ennui.

The romantically wounded foursome embark on their holiday in Tuscany. Friction gives way to friendship, and surrounded by blooming wisteria and warmed by the Mediterranean sun, the women are psychologically rejuvenated.

With music and lyrics by C. Michael Perry and book and lyrics by Elizabeth Hansen, An Enchanted April is an affable show, and the score contains, in general, an appropriate mix of operetta and musical comedy songs. Some evoke motifs from popular songs of the 1920s, and Lottie's standout number, "Right As Rain!," playfully integrates ragtime rhythms.

This is a score, however, that cries out for lush orchestrations to match the nostalgic mood and sumptuous European setting. (Produced by Utah Lyric Opera, the show is similar in tone and aura to Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.) Instead, the musical accompaniment consists of a piano and a synthesizer. (Richard Danley and Ronnie Bishop are the hardworking onstage musicians.) It is a pity because after a while the songs start to sound the same. This is not helped by the fact that the lyrics for compositions with titles like "Show Me the View," "She's Blushing," and "She's Laughing," tend toward the generic. Indeed, running two and a half hours, the show could use some pruning as it begins to wear out its welcome. Nevertheless, there are many pleasures to be had in the course of the evening.

Alma Cuervo and Jim Stanek
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Directed by Alice Jankell, the cast is terrific. As Lottie, the spirited woman who is the guiding force behind the April enchantment, Hocking is thoroughly ingratiating with a voice to match. She is well-paired with Jim Stanek, who plays her uptight and icy husband, who gradually thaws in the warmth of the sun. Cole and Cuervo also give fine performances, and they effectively convey the chipping away of Victorian aloofness. As the socialite, Sims (reminiscent of a young Leslie Uggams) has the least to do, but she has an exquisite soprano voice and conveys the right balance of condescension and vulnerability.

As the two men competing for Rose's affections, Phillips, as her husband, and Peter Reid Lambert, as the castle owner, bring the right amount of bravado and sexual ardor to their roles. Completing the cast is Melody Meeks Putnam, who is very funny as the non-English-speaking servant, Francesca. Rattling nerves with her mealtime gong and warning (in Italian) of exploding bath pipes, Putnam is suitably zany.

The production is simply yet effectively designed. William Armstrong is the resourceful scenic and lighting designer, and the set consists of a few drably decorated pieces of furniture to indicate cheerless London in February which instantly become wisteria-adorned garden furnishings in San Salvatore. Erin Bjorn's projections, cleverly displayed on hanging umbrellas upstage, help create the new- and old-world atmospheres. Matthew Solomon's costumes conjure the characters' shifting perspectives as represented by their constraining Victorian fashions that evolve into liberating jazz-age frocks.

The musical is by no means perfect, and hopefully the creators will continue to refine the material. Still, An Enchanted April is a genial respite from New York's typically cold and damp November.

An Enchanted April
Through November 16, 2019
Theater Two at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036
Tickets online and current performance schedule: