Michael John LaChiusa, the richly talented author of such ambitious musicals as "Marie Christine" and "Hello Again," doesn't gravitate toward frivolity. His sensibility is unabashedly literary, morally probing and serious even when sassy.
Teaming with book writer Sybille Pearson, with whom he wrote the musical based on Edna Ferber's doorstop novel "Giant" (not exactly an amusement park stroll), he has set himself a formidable new challenge in musicalizing W. Somerset Maugham's 1921 short story "Rain," a fable in which religious fanaticism and dissolute temptation duke it out to the bitter end.
The show, which is having its world premiere here at the Old Globe Theatre, has kept Maugham's title and the basic pressure-cooker story line. The contours of the characters have been refined (Maugham's figures are pawns in an ethical melodrama), but the period atmosphere and South Seas ambience have been preserved along with the work's unavoidable mothball aroma.
This is an old-fashioned tale about a febrile Christian missionary who is determined to reform a loose woman he suspects is a prostitute. The setting is a supposedly dilapidated inn on a rainy island in the South Pacific, where a group of passengers have been stranded after a measles outbreak on their ship.
The inherent difficulty in converting this dated material into a compelling music drama for 21st century theatergoers is everywhere apparent. The storytelling has a choppy rhythm that leaves the impression that the authors are still wrestling with their vision — still searching for a modern entry point into Maugham's century-old world.
The resourcefulness of the creative team is undeniably impressive. Under the direction of Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein, who is making his musical-theater directing debut, the production is lovely to look at and frequently a pleasure to listen to. Unfortunately, the musical's supple stretches haven't yet coalesced into a fully satisfying show.
The story, which takes place in 1924, is cumbersome to set up. These aren't characters we are accustomed to meeting on today's musical theater stage, and the situation they find themselves in requires a bit of explanation for an inoculated audience booking flights on their smart phones. But the real obstacle is that the characters are types from early 20th century fiction dreamed up by an author with a 19th century sensibility.
Alfred Davidson (Jared Zirilli), the minister, and his wife, Anna (Elizabeth A. Davis), are religious zealots who are easily offended by the free and easy ways of the natives. The hotel in Pago Pago, the only one that has a room for them, isn't up to their standards. To make matters worse, they're not at all comfortable with the manners of the Scottish proprietor, Jo (Jeremy Davis), who's hard up for money, and his pregnant Samoan wife, Noi Noi (Marie-France Arcilla), who resents being saddled with such judgmental guests.
Alec MacPhail (Tally Sessions), a doctor injured both physically and mentally in the Great War, and his wife, Louisa (Betsy Morgan), are less moralistic than Alfred and Anna, who have taken them under their wing during this travail. But they have their own sexual issues to work out since Alec has returned to civilian life and taken to the bottle.
Into this combustible scene barges Sadie (Eden Espinosa), a second-class passenger who has nowhere else to go. She haggles with Jo over the cost of her room ("You don't want my peaches, Mister, don't shake my tree") and offers the doctor a "shot of hooch."
This Sadie is, at the very least, a vamp — a point that is made perhaps too obviously in her introductory number, "Sunshine," a paean to booze. "Come on, boys, and gas up with me," she coos, hoping to lure the men into her new den of iniquity.
Sadie's subsequent number, "Thirteen Dollars," the amount of money she has to get to Australia and away from America, where she's facing prison time, offers Espinosa a more memorable vehicle. The song doesn't just flaunt Sadie's temperament but connects it to her predicament, thus building sympathy for a character who comes off like an old Hollywood cliché of a working girl. (Joan Crawford portrayed Sadie in the 1932 film adaptation, and the role demands Crawford's trademark blend of hard and soft.)
LaChiusa uses music in manifold ways in "Rain," but more often than not he's interpreting the story through song rather than advancing it. The musical numbers can deepen our understanding of a character (such as Alec's soul-baring arias to Sadie, "The Supposed Me" and "The Noise") or they can make thematic connections among them (as with the entrancingly melancholic "Only the Rain Stays the Same").
The score boasts a diverse palette, incorporating gramophone music from the '20s, Scottish folk and island sounds invoking both Rodgers & Hammerstein's "South Pacific" and Shakespeare's "The Tempest." LaChiusa brings these elements together smoothly, but the show's lack of an overarching flow grows conspicuous, especially in the incongruous finale, in which Sadie seems to believe she starring in "Gypsy."
The disjointed feeling of "Rain," however, has more to do with the unsettled nature of the drama. Pearson's book complicates the characters — Louisa is a sex-starved wife struggling to save her marriage; Alfred, whose stiff rectitude can't hide his sultry good looks, is desperate to overcome his own sinful past.
But it's not easy to update a stereotype like Sadie. Pearson supplies the character with a Dickensian back story, but Maugham's tale is what is. Sexual hypocrisy, religious tyranny and imperialist bullying have hardly been eradicated, but they require new guises to speak to us today.
Mark Wendland's spinning hotel set might be too appealingly resort-like for this mosquito-swarming establishment, but it's an alluring destination for theatergoers. Russell H. Champa's lighting conjures the Pacific island's magical sunsets. And the pitter-patter of incessant rain provides hypnotic underscoring.
Although unable to find much dramatic subtlety in her role, Espinosa brings a brash authority to Sadie's musical numbers. Morgan imbues Louisa with poignant grace, and Davis makes priggishly pious Anna less of a cartoon than she might otherwise be.
Sessions balances the dark and the light in Alec's damaged soul, though the doctor at times seems like a fugitive from a Hemingway novel. The character of Alfred may be hurt by too much explanatory information. In any event, all Zirilli is able to do is ratchet up the minister's fanatical ardor.
I read Maugham's story only after seeing the show. The work has enticed many artists to adapt it, but I'm not convinced this putative classic deserves such an extensive afterlife. The musical has many captivating moments, but the basic drama harks back to a bygone era.
Where: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 1.
Tickets: Start at $36
Info: (619) 234-5623, www.TheOldGlobe.org
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes