By Barry Reszel
The impeccably sung, brilliantly acted, über-professionally staged world premiere musical production of Jane Austen‘s Georgian-set English novel, Sense and Sensibility, at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre has but a single failing.
It’s as exciting as…well, as a Jane Austen novel.
Albeit, it does unfold in a tad under three hours instead of 13 in the case of the unabridged audio CD (400 pages for the old-school print edition). And there is no doubt fans of Austen’s writing and/or the tender tellings of times long gone by will and should revel in this first-class production.
Other patrons of musical theatre, however unfairly, expect more.
To turn a dialogue-heavy novel or play with great visual sameness from scene to scene into a successful musical puts a huge onus on the songbook. It’s up to the music to provide the audience with emotional peaks and valleys in addition to moving the plot forward. It’s why Louisa May Alcott‘s Little Women, set in the 1860s, made it to Broadway in 2005 (music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, more information about that show may be read here).
In that work, musical excitement with pieces like “Five Forever” and “The Weekly Volcano Press,” along with the anthem that achieved iconic musical theatre status, “Astonishing,” set up the show’s gorgeous ballads, like the lovely solo “Here Alone” and magnificent, heart-wrenching duet, “Some Things Are Meant to Be.”
It’s fascinating, really, that half of that Broadway Little Women duet, the lovely Megan McGinnis (who played Beth to BFF Sutton Foster‘s Jo), is starring as the Sensibility sister Marianne, along with stunning Sharon Rietkerk as Sense sister Elinor, in this Chicago production.
While composer, lyricist and book writer Paul Gordon provides plenty of showcase material for his talented leading ladies and the rest of this magnificent cast, he simply doesn’t offer enough variety. The songbook is truly one lovely ballad after another that all blend together, leaving none of them particularly memorable.
To Austen fans, that’s probably just fine. But to even an extremely ballad-loving reviewer, it’s disappointing.
Disappointing, but not completely debilitating. Because this show certainly has its share of highlights. Designer Kevin Depinet‘s three-tiered set with a sweeping gold piece of art as a constant centerpiece is the perfect canvas for Director Barbara Gaines to incorporate simultaneous activity along with interesting staging.
The story itself is of two unmarried sisters in late 1700s England who are banished from their home upon their father’s death because of the era’s male birthright, which left the estate to their half brother and his gold digging wife. The Dashwood sisters move in with a distant relative, and the rest of the tale revolves around their relationships, particularly with men who might become their husbands. Much more plot detail may be read here.
McGinnis and Rietkerk are exquisite as Marianne and Elinor Dashwood. With spot-on characterization and angelic voices, it’s pure delight to listen to their fabulous harmonies in songs like “Lavender Drops,” “Rain” and “Somewhere in Silence,” among others.
So, too, Sean Allan Krill as Marianne’s suitor, Colonel Brandon, particularly shines. Looking like Robert Redford and singing like Robert Preston (both in their primes), Krill has the most memorable song in the show to himself, and he does not disappoint. There’s little question that “Wrong Side of Five & Thirty” is the tune patrons go home humming.
Other standouts in an overall magnificent cast include Paula Scrofano and Michael Aaron Lindner as the delightfully comic Mrs. Jennings and Lord Middleton. A recalibration of this musical would do well to broaden their roles, perhaps into narrators. Emily Berman is delicious as Elinor’s snarky competitor, Lucy Steele. Peter Saide is terrific as the scoundrel, Mr. Willoughby. David Schlumpf and Tiffany Scott deliver strong performances as selfish benefactors John and Fanny Dashwood. In truth, there is no poor performance; the acting, vocals and every facet of the production is first rate.
It’s just that, as a piece of new musical theatre, it would be more sensible to highly recommend if the songbook was a bit more astonishing. Make sense?
“Sense and Sensibility” is presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre through June 7 at the Courtyard Theatre on Navy Pier, Chicago. Tickets ($48 – $78 with $20 tickets available for patrons under 35 and discounts for groups of 10 or more) and information are available online here or by phone at (312) 595-5600.