By Barry Reszel
The reason Chicago is the favored launching pad for Jane Austin novels-turned-musical theatre is unclear.
It’s also undeniable
Like last summer’s Sense and Sensibility at Chicago Shakespeare, Lifeline Theatre’s current musical production of Austen’s very first novel, Northanger Abbey, is making its world premiere here. But unlike the book and music this writer found sensibly staid in last summer’s regal production on Navy Pier featuring Broadway star Megan McGinnis, Lifeline’s Abbey is wrapped in quick wit with a delightful songbook that turn this Georgian-set English novel into must-see musical theatre.
There’s no doubt fans of Austen’s writing and period pieces are the baked-in audience for this staged literature. And of course they will revel in this (or any) first-class production. But to turn a dialogue-heavy novel (Abbey‘s audio version clocks in at a tad more than eight hours) into a successful, digestible musical puts a huge onus on the book and songbook. Robert Kauzlaric‘s quickly-paced dialogue and George Howe‘s interesting and varied music and lyrics provide Director Elise Kauzlaric enough emotional peaks and valleys to move the action forward at a wonderfully proper theatre-viewing pace.
Northanger Abbey, Austin’s semi-autobiographical story and parody of Gothic novels, sees Catherine Morland leave her quiet country home for the splendors of Bath. Armed only with an innocent heart and the examples of her favorite literary heroines, she is immersed into a new world of parties, balls and high society. Catherine soon finds herself caught in a web of social scheming far above her skill to master. False friends, greedy lovers and a wealth of misunderstandings lead to the revelation that bruises of the heart can be far more painful than the imagined terrors of Gothic novels. A complete summary of the story may be read here.
Bringing the tale to life is an exquisite, professional ensemble led by a triumvirate of angel-voiced actresses: Stephanie Stockstill as protagonist Catherine, Lydia Hiller as the shallow Isabella Thorpe and Shelby Lynn Bias as Eleanor Tilney. The ladies are well complemented by the convincing Javier Ferriera as Catherine’s beau, Henry Tilney; Chris Ballou as her brother, James; the hilarious Andres Enriquez as clueless John Thorpe; and the sternly uncompromising General Tilney, played by Peter Greenberg. Indeed this list is a who’s who of actors destined for long careers on Chicagoland stages.
Vocal highlights in a splendid songbook that serves as glue to the plot’s progression include the first act’s “Sweet, Indelicate Complexities,” “The Little I Know” and “Profoundly Human,” along with Act 2’s “The Symmetry of Flowers” and “A Mother Would Have Been a Constant Friend.” So, too, does the invention of a Greek chorus permit a delightful connection between the Gothic novels Catherine reads and her real-life action as it unfolds. Kudos to Robert Kauzlaric for this approach.
Also deserving not just mention, but strong Jeff consideration, is the intimately wonderful set created Sarah Lewis. She transforms the relatively small Lifeline stage into an interestingly geometric labyrinth of archways, levels and entrance points that immensely enhances the show’s overall visual interest. If there’s a nit, it’s that Costume Designer Aly Renee Amidei needed a bigger budget to afford more costume changes, or at least accessorizing.
In short, there is every reason to see this literary classic-turned-musical. Jane Austen would be well pleased, indeed.
Lifeline Theatre presents “Northanger Abbey” through July 17 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. (free parking and shuttle; see below). Regular performance times are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8 pm and Sundays at 4 pm Ticket prices are $40 for regular single tickets, $30 for active and retired military personnel (with ID), $30 for seniors, $20 for students (with ID) and $20 for rush tickets (available half hour before show time, subject to availability). A group rate for 12 or more is available upon request. Tickets may be purchased at the by phone at (773) 761-14477 or online here. Photos by Suzanne Plunkett.