Bristol Riverside gears up for world-premiere musical ‘The Rivals’

The show, which is based on the 1775 play written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, follows the travails of Lydia Languish, a young woman in possession of a large fortune

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Finally here: Though the project of turning The Rivals into a musical has been in the works for several years, the actors dove head first into the fast-paced rehearsal process, making big, creative choices. Source: Bristol Riverside Theatre

During its 2017–2018 season, Bristol Riverside Theatre was at the top of its game. From the adorably inappropriate The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to the memory-inducing Quartet, and of course The Producers, its largest production in history, BRT managed to bring audiences hit after hit.

High expectations for the theater’s 2018–2019 season were certainly set, but so far, BRT isn’t just meeting them. It’s surpassing them. Last month, Licia Watson commanded the stage in the season’s kickoff show Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, a one-woman tour-de-force that chronicled the life of America’s favorite housewife. Now, BRT is preparing to introduce for its second production a brand new musical that has “Broadway” written all over it.

The Rivals, which will make its world premiere at BRT on Thursday, Nov. 1, is based on the classic play written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1775. With book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg, music by Stephen Weiner and direction by Eric Tucker, The Rivals follows the travails of Lydia Languish, a young woman in possession of a large fortune. However, if she marries without the consent of her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, she will lose two-thirds of that fortune.

In the midst of an accelerated rehearsal schedule in New York City, The Times caught up with Erin Mackey and Kevin Massey, two of the stars, to learn more about this hilarious tale of romance and mistaken identities.

Mackey, who has previously appeared on the Bucks County Playhouse stage, is thrilled to be making her BRT debut as leading lady Lydia. According to Mackey, though the project has been in the works for several years, the actors dove head first into the fast-paced rehearsal process, making big, creative choices and doing all-around “ridiculous comedic stuff” to become one with their characters.

Throughout The Rivals, Lydia’s aunt Mrs. Malaprop, played by Harriet Harris, is on a quest to find an appropriate suitor for her niece. The ups and downs of love are portrayed in a laughable way, with Malaprop adding to the humor as she constantly uses the wrong word for things she’s trying to explain. Mackey explained how the word “malapropism,” the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, actually stemmed from the play.

One (or two) of Lydia’s potential matches is the charming Captain Jack Absolute, played by Massey, who masks his identity and tricks her into believing he’s Beverly, a poor ensign. Massey, who is also making his BRT debut, shared his co-star’s sentiment on being part of a world premiere show.

“I love new work. Part of the pressure is off because they don’t have any prior expectations having seen somebody do the roles or knowing the story,” he said. “They (audiences) are literally experiencing it for the first time with us that evening. You really get to be a part of the process of creating it. You don’t feel like you’re stepping into something somebody else has created, and you don’t know why that line was there or why this move was there. You get to put your own stamp on the role, which is always really fun.”

Though the musical stays true to the play in many aspects, taking place in England during the 1700s, Kellogg made sure to add some nods to modern-day humor.

“This is its own take on the story, this musical. It’s not following the play exactly, it’s doing its own thing, too,” Mackey said. “It’s 2018 so we’re going to see this play differently, and it’s embracing that.”

Mackey is particularly excited for audiences to hear the score penned by Weiner, which she said correlates flawlessly to the musical’s setting. For example, since Lydia is an “over-the-top, romantic girl,” as Mackey described her, all of her songs are “very lush and grand.”

“He’s written something that’s really clever,” she said. “What I love about Steve’s music and what I’m discovering as we work on it, there’s a lot of unexpected melodies that just make it a little more interesting to your ears. It doesn’t always go exactly where you think it’s going to, and I like that. On the surface, it sounds like there’s a traditional musical theater aspect to the score, but there’s all these unexpected, complicated things happening.”

The actress also couldn’t say enough about her fellow cast members, who she said happily embraced the borderline absurd humor of The Rivals.

“It’s a really gifted cast of comedic geniuses,” she said. “It’s something we can totally play into and I think the audiences are going to be having a pretty good time.” ••

If you go…

The Rivals will make its world premiere at Bristol Riverside Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m.

For ticket information, visit brtstage.org, call 215–785–0100 or visit the box office at 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com