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A Musical Adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Debuts Off-Broadway

The cast of Pride and Prejudice (Amanda Yachechak, Lissa Moira, Chris Donovan, Emily Hin). Photo by Peter Welch
The cast of Pride and Prejudice (Amanda Yachechak, Lissa Moira, James Parks, Emily Hin). Photo by Peter Welch

Classic literature has been an inspiration for musical theater since the form’s early beginnings. Some of the most well-renowned and unique works of the stage are, in fact, adaptations of novels– Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera, for starters– though some musicals couldn’t manage to translate the book’s success into an audience. This year’s Doctor Zhivago was supposed to thrill audiences with its sweeping epic romance, but instead closed shortly after receiving no Tony nominations. And I’d be remiss to not plug the 2000 adaptation of Jane Eyre, which was successful enough to be represented at the Tony Awards and dig itself into the hearts of Eyreheads like me and Norma.

Now, Jane Austen is receiving the musical treatment with Pride and Prejudice at Theater for the New City. Written by John Taylor Thomas and Lissa Moira, who also directs the show, Pride and Prejudice is a faithful adaptation of Austen’s culture-defining romance. If you don’t already know the plot, it will probably sound familiar from the thousands of stories influenced by it in the past two centuries. The clever and independent Elizabeth Bennet plays a game of “will they, won’t they?” with the equally stubborn though ultimately tender-hearted Mr. Darcy. Meanwhile, Lizzie’s sister Jane seeks out the love of Darcy’s friend Bingley. Together the various romantic relationships in the book explore the ways in which love is complicated and threatened by miscommunication, status, preconceptions, and a lack of self-awareness. However, all is guaranteed to be set right for these deserving lovers and we can walk away with order and happiness restored.

manda Yachechak plays Lizzie to Stephanie Leone's Jane. Photo by Peter Welch
manda Yachechak plays Lizzie to Stephanie Leone’s Jane. Photo by Peter Welch

Thomas and Moira follow the novel to a tee and are hindered by their attentive approach. They include many a minor character and scene that could have easily been cut. Even though there have been cuts to the musical since I saw it, it still clocks in at a burdensome three hours: Darcy doesn’t even make his first proposal to Lizzie until Act 2. And despite the detailed adaptation, Austen’s wittiness, subtlety, and humor is lost in the dialogue and you never quite feel like you’re getting much else other than exposition.

The musical numbers, sung admirably by a talented cast, have quite a classic feel to them and could have been the simple romantic ballads of lovesick crooner. Unfortunately, they don’t serve much in the ways of character development. In fact, I would argue that the lyrics, in fact, generalize the characters into tropes instead of providing them with the specificity and depth they so deserve. Darcy’s first song, for example, only reiterates his yearning without providing it with any particularity or context– the song could have been sung by nearly any lovestruck character in any show. Likewise, Jane’s song renders her a silly, infatuated woman, making her into a broad cliche instead of a complex, sympathetic character. For all its run time, the characters hardly find their voice.

There is no doubt that this musical has its work cut out for it and further development to go. Luckily, at its heart, it has a resounding story to guide its efforts.

Courtship Totally Sucks in ‘You On The Moors Now’

In Pride and Prejudice, the indignant and self-sufficient Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr. Darcy’s first marriage proposal, believing him to be the cause of her sister’s failed romance with his friend Bingley. Overwhelmed with the confusion of her existing relationships, she departs for London with her aunt and uncle and slowly learns the truth about Darcy’s benevolent nature, as well as how to temper her severe perceptions with optimistic prudence.

Lizzie, as well as many of her fellow 19th century heroines, must first encounter what she doesn’t want and/or err in her decision-making in order to ultimately make the right decision for her future. Jane Eyre runs from Rochester and finds a new life and new identity on the tumultuous moors, returning to Rochester some time later under vastly different circumstances and with new self-knowledge. Jo March (Little Women) rejects the proposal of her childhood friend Laurie, a seemingly perfect fit for her, and only finds happiness with Professor Bhaer after much anxiety and confusion. Cathy (Wuthering Heights) refuses to marry the wild, passionate Heathcliff, choosing instead the mild, bourgeois Edgar.

Lauren Swan-Potras (Jo), Anastasia Olowin (Cathy), Kelly Rogers (Lizzy), Sam Corbin (Jane) Photo by Suzi Sadler
Lauren Swan-Potras (Jo), Anastasia Olowin (Cathy), Kelly Rogers (Lizzy), Sam Corbin (Jane)
Photo by Suzi Sadler

It’s in this tumultuous haze between disillusionment and satisfaction that Jaclyn Backhaus’s You On The Moors Now places us. Performed by the Theater Reconstruction Ensemble at HERE Arts Center and directed by TRE founder John Kurzynowski, the play begins with a familiar, modern retelling of these classic literary denials. One by one, these young women reject their marriage proposals, mixing contemporary and humorous language with quotes from the original text. Laurie, for example, opts for less romantic efforts to get Jo’s attention: “So here’s the thing, bitch!” then moving into a back-and-forth chorus of “You shut up!” with Jo. The scenes are witty and endearing, swapping (what some might call) rigid, antiquated dialogue for an expressive, impulsive, and youthful meltdown of sorts. The rejections aren’t always the best decisions and the women are fickle and hot-headed with their emotions. You On The Moors Now isn’t so much about women escaping the confining conditions of their love lives but rather about the seemingly never-ending errors and distractions on the road to happiness.

After a strong first half, the second begins to falter. The play departs drastically from the original texts. Set and time no longer exist for the characters– they are unhinged from the 19th century. The women run away from their homes and unite on the moors, forming a coalition to protect their independence. They avoid their regrets and pursue other life goals, such as careers in space exploration and marketing. If we thought that Lizzie and Jane’s choices weren’t difficult enough, imagine if their Victorian limitations disappeared. Throw professional aspirations and other freedoms not previously granted to these women into the mix. Let them figure out which of their thoughts and emotions are most genuine in a contemporary culture saturated with images of other people’s successes and failures. The modern romantic landscape is much like getting lost on the moors.

The men desperately try to retrieve the four women, employing other male literary characters like Edgar, St.John, and Jo’s mother to track them down. The plot loses sight of it focus and begins to sound more like fan fiction (bad fan fiction at that) than a coherent narrative. It’s not that departure from the original texts is not invited. And likewise, I understood the frenzied, rushed nature of the play’s middle act to represent the noncommittal confusion and anxiety of the characters’ emotional lives.  Theoretically, the play’s structure and content work so intuitively together– I just wished the second half’s script had something more unique and less cumbersome to say. My dissatisfaction with the direction of the play culminated in the final act, a long scene in which the actors sit in a single line on stage and perform what is essentially a table-reading of the resolution. Leather-bound book in hand, Cathy acts as narrator, reading aloud several pages of quite shallow fiction detailing the characters’ reunion.

Harlan Alford (Heathcliff), Nathaniel Basch-Gould (Laurie), Preston Martin (Darcy), Jon Riddleberger (Rochester) Photo by Suzi Sadler
Harlan Alford (Heathcliff), Nathaniel Basch-Gould (Laurie), Preston Martin (Darcy), Jon Riddleberger (Rochester) Photo by Suzi Sadler

You On The Moors Now is an insightful meditation on living with the uncertainty of our actions and the anxiety of missed love. With a tighter, more cohesive second half, I can see Backhaus’s play become a powerful and nuanced piece.

You On The Moors Now plays at HERE Arts through February 28. Tickets Here.

A 12 foot tall Mr. Darcy statue (as played by the Firth) is working it in Hyde Park, London.

http://now-here-this.timeout.com/2013/07/08/oh-mr-darcy-yes-therea-giant-colin-firth-floating-in-the-serpentine/

LOL OK

Can we do one of Hugh Jackman in Central Park PLEASE? (Ya know, before we work on getting universal healthcare or some other nonsense.)

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