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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
While Hard Times may not have the sort of joyous ending associated with Dickens's novels, it does have the usual assortment of memorably colorful characters. It also once again underscores Dickens ability to combine masterful story telling with the sort of fictional muckraking that made his books passionate outcries against all sorts of social issues.
In Hard Times the issue is that people cannot live or thrive without feelings, imagination and curiosity. The tragedy seeded by Mr. Gradgrind's obsession with facts is that both his children grow into unfulfilled, unhappy adults.Set as it is in the dour Coketown, a place whose mills make its businessmen rich and its workers miserable, the unhappy Gradgrind saga is paralelled by the inability of the exploited, weavers and their masters to find a way to understand and empathize with each others' viewpoints. Mr. Sleary, the owner of a circus, embodies the disdained but more admirable fanciful mindset
Since Dickens' style is innately dramatic (as the Pearl's dramaturg Kate Farrington points out, his novels were often staged even as he was still finishing them a chapter at a time for newspaper serialization), Mr. Jeffreys' approach effectively connects active scenes with narration spoken by the actors, their commentary often referring to the characters they're about to play. The dialogue as well as the narration comes directly from the original text (If you don't own the book, you can check this out for yourself at Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/786a).
The challenge of having a small ensemble morph from narration to interactive scenes, from one character to another with a quite different personality, may seem mind boggling. But orchestrated as skillfully as it is by Mr. Sullivan and with actors well up to the required wizardry, the theatricality is enhanced. It's nothing short of amazing to watch these actors fluidly slip into each role, often changing costumes designed by the talented Devin Painter. Jo Winiarski's simple, not too specific scenery abets easy movement to various locations. She and Painter even create a visually dynamic circus for Gradgrind to wander into and discover his daughter before she becomes totally converted to his dry and stifling fact principles.
Not only is this a big story told with great dramatic flair but it's clear and no previous familiarity with the novel is required to understand what's going on. The production takes its time to tell the full story with no skimping on character development. Unlike so many films and plays adapted from book, this Hard Times truly honors its source material.
Two of the chief characters are the story's villains who represent Dickens' indictment of the economic and educationally misguided philosophies: Gradgrind embodies pedagogical view that devalues exploration of ideas and feelings; the odious "self-made humbug " Josiah Bounderby is a symbol of the self-interested master class spawned by a dehumanized society. T. J. Edwards as Gradgrind remains convincingly rigid when he becomes a member of Parliament and yet manages just enough softness to eventually stand by his distraught daughter. He's also excellent as Blackpool, the careworn but anti-union, unlucky in love weaver. Bradford Cover is a power house whether playing the blustery, despicable Bounderby or Harthouse, the bored sophisticate for whom everything is a game, whether supporting Gradgrind's and Bounderby's conservative ideas in Parliament or trying to seduce Louisa, the daughter of the former and the wife of the latter .
Rounding out the cast are Jolly Abraham, the newest member of the Pearl Resident acting company, and Robin Leslie Brown, a founding member who aslo appeared in the 1997 production (different parts). Abraham is delightful as Sissy Jupe, the poor young girl who leaves the circus to be educated in Mr. Gragrind's school and becomes part of his household. The husky-voiced Brown is right at home as Mrs. Sparsit, Bounderboy's mean spirited housekeeper. She also gets to display a kinder, gentler woman as Blackpool's devoted lady love.
If there's one misstep in this production it's the scene when Mrs. Sparsit tries to catch Louisa and Harthouse in an illicit affair in hopes of breaking up her marriage and once again taking full charge of the Bounderby household. Brown's acting is too over-the-top here. The chase goes on too long and is out of synch with the production's overall fluidity. However, one overcooked scene is a minor flaw when you consider that everything else about this Hard Times adds up to a Good Time experience.
Hard Times 4-actor version of this adaptation, at the Pearl in 1997
Hard Times, different adaptation with big cast, Los Angeles 2004
Adapted from Charles Dickens's novel by Bart De Lorenzo at La Evidence room and with large cast Hard Times musical version, London 2000.