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A CurtainUp Review
Jane Eyre, The Musical
By Elyse Sommer
"Reader, I married him." Those are my favorite words from Charlotte Brontë's granddaddy of all gothic romances, Jane Eyre.
During the period in my years as a literary agent when contemporary gothics buttered many of my authors' bread, I never came across a script with words that came close to the simple power of that opening sentence from the novel's penultimate chapter. These bread and butter scripts were penned by writers less hampered by the narrowness of Brontë's life. None would have passed editorial muster with a plot revolving around a madwoman locked undiscovered in an attic. Yet Bertha, Brontë's madwoman and her keeper, Grace Poole, and its sturdy plain Jane heroine and flamboyantly surly hero live on while many of my clients' books have either been recycled or relegated to boxes of 10-cent books at tag sales.
What's all this got to do with Jane Eyre, the Musical. To paraphrase, Jane "Reader I liked it."
Paul Gordon score is lyrical and often quite moving. Though some may want to write it off as easy listening, too heavily reprised pop music, the sound is musical theater that will hold up after several replays of the CD. It has for me!
True to its source, this is a musical that is stuffed with big emotions -- cruelty, despair, courage, forgiveness and, above all, an all-consuming love. Some of the scene and character cuts and modifications needed to translate this very internalized narrative into a musical work better than others. For example, I missed the Red Room where Jane Eyre spent so many miserable hours, especially since it could have added some flash to the predominantly black palette. The use of a chorus of narrators instead of just Jane effectively moves the story forward and enhances the gothic aura. On the whole, co-directors John Caird and Scott Schwartz, have adhered to Brontë's text with loving respect.
Topping the show's considerable assets are the two leads. Marla Schaffel is a splendid, still-waters-run-deep Jane who has the voice of a true Broadway musical star. James Barbour is a handsome, Byronic Edward Rochester who more than matches Schaffel's acting and singing skills. In fact, as good as Ms. Schaffel is, the narrative doesn't really catch fire until she meets her destiny at Rochester's estate, Thornfield Hall, and Barbour explodes onto the stage.
Notwithstanding the show's somewhat slow to ignite flame, the flashback to Jane's grim youth with her nasty aunt and nephew and as a student and teacher in a fire and brimstone boarding school are necessary to establish her character and situation. Having Schaffel as a by-stander watching herself endure mistreatment, privation, the loss of her only friend is a generally if not always potent device, especially, given Lisa Musser's fine portrait of young Jane. She looks as if she'd stepped right out of Brontë's book so that it's not a stretch to accept the adult Jane's persistent self-image of that plain little girl.
Ms. Musser is not the only support player worth singling out. In the first act, Jayne Paterson contributes enormously as Jane's doomed friend Helen Burns (and later, one of the Ingram girls). To lend some welcome comic relief to the basically dark and dour gothic proceedings, Mary Stout is ideally cast as Mrs. Fairfax. Her delightful Gilbert and Sullivan style songs "Perfectly Nice" and "A Slip of a Girl" are show stopping musical highlights. Elizabeth DeGrazia's Blanche Ingram is the epitome of the nasty, spoiled society girl who wants to be Mrs. Rochester but is scared off when Rochester disguises himself as a Gypsy and tells her there is no fortune for her to hunt. She is as silly and frivolous as Jane is sober, and her coloratura trills are delicious meringues in contrast to Jane's passionate arias. The whole ensemble is to be commended for their skillful depiction of enough roles to create a sense of a much larger cast than the eighteen I counted.
Technically, the production manages to be true to its stark palette even as it provides an impressive display of stage wizardry. Jane's journey through life takes her swirling around John Napier's turntable set. To supply the furnishings and backgrounds along the way, Napier has mounted a second carousel on the ceiling from which a series of scrims onto which scenic slides are projected send windows, chandeliers, furniture, topiaries and other props t flying Peter Pan-like, onto the stage. While some of these flying props at times distract from the intimacy of the story, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's lighting and projections (the latter a collaboration with Napier and Lisa Podgu4 Cuscuna) are spectacularly successful, as are Andreane Neofitou costumes.
If I failed to include the lyrics in my previous comments about Paul Gordon's music, it's because you're better off not paying too much attention to them. They're more on the order of the writing of those modern faux-Brontë novelists I mentioned, than authentic Brontë. Some could easily be recycled for future musicals -- for example, a musical about our recent presidential campaign, could use the lyrics from "Forgiveness" for a Gore concession song: You musn't be revengefl/You have to be strong/To offer good for evil/Return right for wrong/We must not hold a grudge/We must learn to endure/Then as God is your judge/Your heart will endure."
Will this serious, straightforward romance ring up enough ticket sales to survive on Broadway? For those who, like this reviewer, have read and re-read the book and invest it with their own storehouse of emotional memories, it's a must see. However, like the book, the musical is decidedly female friendly (to wit, its all female lineup of producers!) and may suffer from a variant of the "men don't eat quiche" syndrome. The two women sitting in front of me, and the two men behind me probably best illustrate this potentially divided appeal: The men often laughed at inappropriate moments; the women contentedly soaked up their tissues.
Perhaps, for a more dance friendly, unisex appeal, John Caird might have considered a more avante garde, deconstructionist approach, like that used by Polly Teale's Shared Experience Company (see link to our review of that play below). On the other hand, avante-garde isn't exactly the stuff of enduring Broadway musicals either, so I hope enough people will give this lovely production, and its splendid cast the chance to persevere -- like Jane.
For a review of an unsual play adaptationgo here