Saturday 16 May 2015

Theatre Review: Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: A New Musical, Shakespeare Theater, Chicago

Last weekend, the Secret Victorianist was in Chicago, and caught a production of a new musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) at the Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.

McGinnis and Rietkerk as Marianne and Elinor
Paul Gordon’s musical retains the wit and charm of the source text but strips back the novel to concentrate on the two sisters, with two very different personalities, at its heart – Elinor (played by Sharon Rietkerk) and Marianne (Megan McGinnis). Their mother and younger sister are absent here, and Austen purists will find some other differences of plot, but the intention is clear - by making the siblings’ relationship the focus of the play, the piece has a dramatic singularity of vision that serves it well.

Kevin Depinet's set design
This choice, with the sisters’ similarities and differences highlighted by mirrored staging, emotional duets, and (a little heavy-handedly) symbolic costume colours, means at times the production comes off as Jane Austen for the Frozen generation. The romantic interests are almost incidental to what even the welcome note in the programme tells us is the real love story – ‘the safe harbour of unconditional love’ between the two sisters. As Marianne and Elinor advance hand in hand at the show’s finale, Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars left to the side, the sincerity is a real contrast to the more sardonic note of the novel’s conclusion:

‘Among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.’

But, as in Frozen, a simple story leads to a strong musical and it’s easy to get swept along in the fun.

Rietkerk and McGinnis do a great job with a strong cast of actors in support. Sean Allan Krill, as Brandon, nearly steals the show at times and his simultaneously funny and moving ‘Wrong Side of Five & Thirty’ proves one of the most memorable and hummable musical numbers. Emily Berman is also strong as Lucy Steele, managing to come off as simultaneously naïve and threatening. Tiffany Scott is a bit too pantomime villain for me as Fanny Dashwood, but David Schlumpf is very believable as her weak-minded husband John.

Anna and Elsa in Disney's Frozen
McGinnis as Marianne was at her best when singing – ‘Rain’ and its reprise were her strongest numbers. Rietkerk as Elinor was strong when singing too but also had beautiful reactions, conveying the most emotion in a play that was largely lighthearted and often comedic and Wayne Wilcox as Edward was a perfect counterpoint to her pathos, engendering sympathy from the audience as well as laughs at his awkwardness. It would have been nice to see more obvious differentiation between Brandon and Willoughby (Peter Saide), as the two seemed similar in age, bearing, and physicality. Kevin Depinet’s set is beautiful – suggesting place and period without hindering the fast pace and fluidity of the space.

Sean Allan Krill as Colonel Brandon
Overall, BarbaraGaines’s production is a great entertainment. What it offers is a night of escapism – high romance, beautiful costumes, and satisfyingly soaring music. Yet its loyalty lies with the ‘rules’ of theatrical storytelling - if you’re looking for textual fidelity, return to reading or a cinematic adaptation.

Do you know of any theatre productions (in New York) set in the nineteenth century you think the Secret Victorianist should review? Let me know - here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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