BRT’s ‘The Rivals’ is charming audiences

The world-premiere musical, which runs through Nov. 18, was a hit on opening night

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

On stage: The Rivals is a pleasant surprise at every turn as it finds creative ways to link the intricacies of modern-day dating to that of the 18th century. Source: Mark Garvin

It was 1775 in France, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan had just penned his first play, The Rivals. Nerves were high as it was presented in front of a live audience for the first time. He and his wife, Elizabeth Linley, were a step away from financial ruin, and the show’s success was the only way they’d survive.

During opening night, The Rivals was booed mercilessly, with one theater-goer chucking an apple at a cast member. Thankfully, Sheridan was able to determine where the problems lied, and only six weeks later, introduced a revised version that received unprecedented praise.

Now, more than 240 years later, The Rivals continues to evolve and charm audiences. On Thursday, Nov. 1, attendees packed into Bristol Riverside Theatre for the world-premiere musical adaptation of the play, which will run through Nov. 18.

Ever since BRT unveiled the lineup for its 2018–2019 season, it’s used lofty terms such as “hilarious” and “Broadway-bound” to describe the musical. So often, when a show or movie is hyped up this much, it rarely lives up to people’s expectations.

But The Rivals is the exception.

Everything about the production, from the talented cast and creative sets to the impeccably-written, humorous songs, is flawless. With book and lyrics by two-time Tony-nominee Peter Kellogg, music by two-time Richard Rodgers Award-winner Stephen Weiner and direction by Eric Tucker, it would come as no surprise if The Rivals eventually made its way to the Big Apple.

From the moment the musical begins, audiences are instantly transported to 18th century Bath, England, a place with no shortage of romance (and where the water is rumored to cure all ailments). The focus is placed on the two lead characters — Lydia Languish, played by Erin Mackey, and Ensign Beverly, played by Kevin Massey — whom The Times introduced its readers to last month.

Both boast strong vocals as they sing “On Love Alone,” during which they explain Lydia’s wealthy background, and how she’s willing to lose two-thirds of her fortune to be with the poverty-stricken Beverly. In Lydia’s opinion, love and money have absolutely nothing to do with each other — happiness is the only thing that matters.

Mackey portrays the young girl with ease, exuding a perfect mixture of sweet and spoiled with a pleasing Disney-esque voice. Meanwhile, Massey excels at his double-duty of playing the poor ensign, as well as his character’s true identity, Captain Jack Absolute. He’s funny, sarcastic, and someone audiences will find themselves rooting for despite his deception of Lydia.

Throughout The Rivals, a number of confusing yet entertaining relationships are introduced, including the engagement of Julia Melville, Lydia’s friend and cousin played by Charlotte Maltby, and Faulkland, played by Jim Weitzer. The two met when Faulkland saved Charlotte from nearly drowning, and she agreed to marry him despite some alarming quirks.

Weitzer is a surprise standout in the cast with his superb acting chops and effortless comedic timing. During “I’m Not Too Sensitive,” it’s unveiled that Faulkland is actually extremely sensitive. In fact, he’s borderline obsessive. While away, he hoped Charlotte would get attacked by some birds of prey (you know, the usual concerns) so that she’d miss him. When it’s least expected, Weitzer makes sporadic “sensitive” returns, leaving audiences roaring with laughter each time.

Another actor to watch out for in The Rivals is Chris Dwan, who plays the role of Squire Bob Acres. Sporting a foot-long ponytail and knee-high boots, Dwan flies under the radar for the first quarter of the show. But during one scene, when Faulkland is expressing concern that his fiance had too much fun while he was away, Acres has his shining moment.

He recalls attending the same concert as Julia, where she sang the catchy “My Heart Is Mine.” Acres begins to sing the earworm-inducing song himself, and by the end of it, Faulkland, Captain Jack Absolute (and quite a few audience members) are joining in. Sassy and over-the-top, Dwan easily drew the most laughter of the night.

Of course, the cast isn’t without its share of stage veterans, with Harriet Harris starring as Lydia’s aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, and Ed Dixon as Sir Anthony Absolute, Captain Jack’s father. Both add their own flair of comedy to their characters, with Malaprop consistently misusing words in sentences and Anthony joining his son (as well as Acres and Sir Lucis McTrigger, played by John Treacy Egan) at Lydia’s window in a quest to win her heart.

The Rivals is a pleasant surprise at every turn as it finds creative ways to link the intricacies of modern-day dating to that of Sheridan’s 18th-century world. Audience members are able to see themselves in these revamped characters, for whom they gave a standing ovation at the end of the show.

Unlike that evening in 1775, no apples were thrown. ••

If you go…

The Rivals will play at Bristol Riverside Theatre through Nov. 18. 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