The Good Woman

(a musical based on Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan)
Music and lyrics by Michael Rice
Book and additional lyrics by Eric Bentley
Directed by Alexa Kelly
Pulse Ensemble Theater
432 West 42nd Street (695-1596)
Equity showcase (closes Apr. 5)
Review by David Mackler

Michael Rice and Eric Bentley's The Good Woman, a musical adaptation of Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan, is a model of straight-faced earnestness, yet it adamantly acknowledges, as Brecht's play did, that life is never simply black-and-white, and that nothing is as simple as it might be because human nature keeps getting in the way. But while The Good Woman is never as vibrant or imperative as it thinks it is, this production offered many pleasures, most especially from the collection of outstanding performers. The Good Woman is a resolutely old-fashioned musical, starting off with an ensemble song that sets the scene "In Setzuan." This number also places the musical squarely in the never-never land of "setting: anywhere," because there are few Asian elements to the production. Into a junkyard slum of the homeless and the prostitutes of Setzuan come three gods, looking for good people. They will even settle for one, so they don't have to destroy the human race. (The gods themselves -- Grenville Cuyler, Robert Zanfini, Morten Ruda - are song-and-dance men who seem to be modeled after The Buffalo Bills from The Music Man.) Shen Ta (Susan McGeary) is the only one who will take them in for the night (thereby proving her good woman status in spite of being a prostitute), and they reward her with a gift of money. This is what sets the play's theme in motion, as she must now deal with assorted relatives, hangers-on, and opportunists as she tries to earn an honest living as a tobacconist. ("It All Adds Up" is the clever, tuneful number which explains this set-up as it moves the action along.) Shen Ta must impersonate her own fictitious male cousin to make her business successful, and "he" becomes the hard-driving counterpoint to her own openheartedness. Here is where the plot of The Good Woman starts to reveal its creaky lineage - the characters seem to be the only ones who have never seen this device before. That it comes off at all is due to the charm of the actors. Because even though the writers "have tried to be as true to Brecht as the Musical Theatre format allows" (in the words of director Alexa Kelly) and the story line has been "streamlined," the audience follows on faith the ups and downs of Shen Ta's fortunes, the affairs of her heart, and even grants the indulgence of allowing the play to end without an ending. There are few out-of-tune players in this large, well-meshed cast of 30, and many individual performances shone brightly. Especially worthy of mention were Angelina Fiordellisi, Paula Roth, Kwang Sung, Susan Walker, and Dianne Zumbro, all of whom made their marks and rose above the blanket of allegory and symbolism which continually threatened to smother audience interest. Brian Richardson as our tour guide, a "water bearer" who sells bottled water, helped smooth over narrative lumps. But above all was the wonderful, wide-eyed simplicity of Susan McGeary as Shen Ta. She followed all the conventions of musical comedy, but also gave a strong, assured, and direct performance that made Shen Ta's destiny far more important than the fate of mankind. She was an understudy to the role, but it is difficult to see how she could be bettered. Michael Rice's music is superior to his and Eric Bentley's lyrics, especially in ballads like "Nocturne," but his score does include good numbers which comment on, as well as further, the action ("A Wonderful Rainy Day"), while also being good songs. The junkyard setting (by Michael Kay) was eminently believable, as were the costumes (Liam O'Brien) and lighting (Herrick Goldman). Barry McNabb contributed the choreography to the wedding-party sequence, the only dancing in the piece. If only The Good Woman weren't so devoutly married to its rather didactic source - Brecht unfortunately gives this Good Woman feet of clay.

Box Score:

Writing: 1 (Music 2/Lyrics 1)
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2
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Copyright 1998 David Mackler