Making E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room with a View into a musical is not possible. It’s out of the question, as someone in A Room with a View would say. A couple characters go skinny-dipping in a pond behind the house and “it reminded one of swimming in a salad.” How do you stage writing like that? By realizing you’re never going to be able to and bringing theatrical ideas to the table instead. Director David Armstrong takes a ton of awesome, admirable risks in this production, and the standout success, the thing that brought the house down halfway through act two, causing a near-riot of whooping and hollering and a genuine dynamic moment between characters, is the way Armstrong does the skinny-dipping scene. It’s almost a throwaway scene in the book involving three male characters, but it’s pivotal in this production. During intermission, before the scene came to pass, I said to my friend that I hoped there’d be male nudity in act two, and he looked around at the well-to-do audience and said, “For these people? No way. Not these people. If there is, then this show has a shot.” Well, there was. Three guys. Full frontal. A near-riot, I tell you. Of sheer delight.
Among the clothesless is Louis Hobson, a musical-theater MVP who sings like happiness blended into vapor. Been on Broadway, recently moved back to Seattle, newly artistic director of Balagan Theatre. He was just in Spamalot at the 5th Avenue, and did fine, as always, but his performance here is something else: He looks like a lamp someone just found the cord for. George Emerson is a role he was born to play. Laura Griffith, as Lucy Honeychurch, the object of George’s infatuation, doesn’t inhabit her character quite as comfortably—not yet. That might be the material’s fault: In bringing the story to the stage, her character has become the most muddled. But that can be fixed. In his opening-night speech, Armstrong mentioned that this is the 16th new musical the 5th Avenue has produced since 2001, and nine of those went from the 5th Avenue to Broadway. He emphasized the work-in-progress nature of A Room with a View, saying that this is a collaboration with the audience and indicating that feedback might give them the final few ideas to make this show Broadway-ready. In that spirit, here are three constructive criticisms to help emphasize what’s great about this production and sort out the muddle, followed by some unabashed praise.
Three Constructive Criticisms
• Lucy Honeychurch’s deal is that she’s torn between the deeply ingrained upper-crust British repressiveness of her upbringing and the more sensual, unpredictable, expressive side of herself drawn out by a trip to Florence, Italy. We learn about her expressive side by watching her play Beethoven at a piano while singing a song called “Ludwig and I.” It’s moving watching Griffith play, utterly convincing, beautiful hand work, until she jumps up in the middle of the song and starts running around the room, ruining the illusion that she was ever playing the piano, and then, capping off the weirdness, sitting back down at the piano at the end of the song to obviously fakely play it again. One gets the sense the director thought a person at a piano just can’t adequately express “expressiveness,” or else a person at a piano is just not interesting enough visually, which makes some sense, except that there are plenty of examples in history of solitary performers at pianos putting on quite the show. Think Lady Gaga. Think Elton John. Getting up in the middle of the song to wave her arms with floral gestures does not make Lucy seem more artistic; it almost makes her seem like she’s lost her mind, and she loses our sympathy. Overall, semi-related: We need to see more of Lucy’s strict side at the start of the show in order to marvel more fully at the transformation she makes by the end. Right now, our very first impression of her is her delighting in saying “bloody hell” in the streets of Florence because she thinks the Italians can’t understand English; this first impression is confusing, because it makes her seem fully liberated from the get-go.
• Several songs should go out the window. “A Room with a View,” a song George’s father sings to him to try to get him out of bed, is a jumble of musical ideas in search of a melody, and the lyrics are breathtakingly banal, about how views are great because you can see lots of different things. I realize this song is called “A Room with a View.” Cut it. Likewise, the song that follows it, “The Music of the Street,” about walking through Florence, should be scrapped. The first half of the first act drags, and these cuts would help.
• At the very end of the show, George sings a song to Lucy that’s supposed to convince her to be with him instead of the man she’s set to marry, a wealthy, simpering effete named Cecil Vyse. In the novel, George explains that Cecil is “the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he’s forming you, telling you what’s charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of your own.” He also says things like, “Have you ever talked to Vyse without feeling tired?” What’s called for here is a funny song from George, a song making fun of Cecil and his retrograde, leisure-class ridiculousness. The audience would love a scathing impersonation of Cecil’s hauteur, and it would clarify George’s brooding, ballsy character. Instead, as currently written, George sings Lucy the sappiest of love songs, the chorus of which contains the phrase “I love you.” The chorus of a love song should never be “I love you.”
The set is great, the cast is great, the score is great, the singing is great. Will Reynolds is absolutely perfect as Cecil Vyse. The technical accomplishments are dazzling: There’s rain onstage, there’s Louis Hobson in a head mic singing while being rained on (using “a special kind of microphone that surfers attach to their surfboards when they are making crazy videos,” according to the 5th Avenue), and again there’s the aforementioned skinny-dipping scene, set to a crowd-pleasing song called “Splash!” (also sung through copious splashing water). Other great songs: the starchy hilariousness of “Sixes and Sevens” (a song that was in my head the next day, amazingly, considering I’d only ever heard it once), the starchy hilariousness of “Failed, Failed, Failed,” and the gorgeously languid “A Carriage and Driver” with eight distinct vocal parts. The murder scene in the streets of Florence is staged perfectly—the lights, the blocking, the emotional whiplash—and the song George sings right after it, “Something Tremendous,” is something tremendous. From the very first moment we see him, George is the focus—of Lucy’s eyes and our own. It would be sad to lose Louis Hobson to Broadway again, but A Room with a View would be a beautiful reason to.