“The Rivals,” written by Irish playwright and poet Richard Sheridan, is a clever comedy of manners. Written when he was in his early twenties, it gave him the money to get out of debt and begin a literary career. Just as famous is his play, “School For Scandal.”

Though it was written in 1775, the focus on the universal themes of love and marriage, and its obstacles, is still quite relevant today. Bristol Riverside Theatre has brought “The Rivals” back, this time as a musical. And it is making its world premiere at the theater beside the Delaware River. 

It begins with Ensign Beverly courting the young and beautiful Lydia Languish. She wants to marry for love and tells Beverly that she wants to give up her wealth and elope with him. He, penniless, has mixed feelings about it, though he is in love with Lydia. Her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, will have none of it. In the meantime, his father has arranged a marriage for his son. It gets very complicated as we learn that Beverly is actually faking poverty to appeal to Lydia. Lest you think I’ve given away too much, this all occurs in the first 10 minutes.

I read the play many years ago, when I was in junior high school, but remembered little except that it was rather funny and that it featured a character named Mrs. Malaprop, a name that became synonymous with the misuse of words, usually with a comic effect. Harriet Harris delivers a stellar performance in the role, altering words with such ease that we must think twice about what she has just said.

The entire cast was strong, from Kevin Massey and Erin Mackey as the young lovers, to Jim Weitzer and Charlotte Maltby, another couple with some serious issues that revolve  around their romancing. Dressed exquisitely by costume designer Lisa Zinni, they all possessed powerful voices as they sang the songs that were created for this newest rendition of the classic play. The music, on the other hand, was unimpressive and didn’t add a whole lot the production.

Plays throughout the 20th century have found their way to the stage as musicals. We know the names of those musicals better than the plays that sired them. We loved “My Fair Lady," "Oklahoma," "Chicago," "The Fantasticks," "Sweeny Todd," "Hello Dolly,” and others. Sadly, this version of The Rivals,” with book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg and music by Stephen Weiner, doesn’t add to the original play in any significant way. While Kellogg has done an admirable job of contemporizing the play, and even adding new malapropisms to the lady’s repertoire, the lyrics to his songs do little more than repeat what Sheridan wrote over 200 years ago. The actors merely sang the songs as in an opera, between the storylines, rather than have it smoothly incorporated into the action of the play. It was often an effort to listen.

Let me end on a positive note. The set, with actors sliding around window and doors and chairs was elegant in its simplicity. The production, as it stands, although an interesting attempt at a new look at an old play, needs more development.

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