Chicago Theatre Review
There Were Never Such Devoted Sisters
Sense and Sensibility – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
Jane Austen’s novel about Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, two devoted friends who also just happen to be sisters, is a story that challenges its readers to choose which quality is best: sense, having good judgment, or sensibility, which in this case, means being guided by one’s emotions. In Austen’s novel, Elinor is depicted as a levelheaded young woman of sense, while her younger sister Marianne is the more romantic, impulsive girl who’s a victim of her sensibilities. In the end, Miss Austen suggests that a careful balance between these two qualities is best.
Jane Austen’s first published novel, considered “a comedy of manners,” has been adapted into a number of other formats. They include everything from the original 1811 three volume first edition of the novel, to various theatrical versions, a television mini-series and a popular 1995 film, adapted by and starring Emma Thompson. There have even been other musical adaptations of Miss Austen’s novel, but Paul Gordon’s version, commissioned by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is a beautifully crafted chamber piece that finds the essence of the story within its lyrical dialogue that translates naturally into a melodic score. Enjoying its world premiere in Chicago, Gordon’s previous works have included a musical version of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” as well as the score for “Jane Eyre,” for which he won the Tony Award. This time around, Mr. Gordon has not only composed the music and lyrics but has written the book for his latest work.
Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, primarily known for her majestically sweeping and deeply emotional Shakespearean productions, makes her musical directing debut at CST with Gordon’s mellifluous adaptation. The show is presented with Ms. Gaines’ impeccable sense of period and style, while keeping the action and the music flowing over Kevin Depinet’s visually impressive, two-tiered set and out into the aisles. The look of Regency England continues with Susan E. Mickey’s exquisite, period-perfect costumes and Melissa Veal’s elegant wig and makeup design. There’s both light comedy and moving melodrama as this story of loss, miscommunication, rekindled affections and all-consuming love comes to life upon the Courtyard stage. Assisting Ms. Gaines in this stirring, fervent production, and bringing Mr. Gordon’s melodies to life, Musical Director Laura Bergquist has guided the cast to excellence, while conducting her gifted ten-piece orchestra, masked and housed high above the stage.
As is often the case at this theater, the cast is impeccable. As sisters Elinor and Marianne, Sharon Rietkerk and Megan McGinnis are ideal. They completely transform into these two very different ladies, and every Jane Austen fan will applaud the accuracy behind this casting. Both young ladies display the late 18th century grace and demeanor demanded by style, taking theatergoers along with them on their emotional journeys. Ms. Riekerk and McGinnis both sing with confidence and crystal clarity, making numbers like “Not Even You” and “The Swing,” as well as their duets “A Darker Shade of Grief,” “Somewhere in Silence” and “Stowaway,” sound beautiful and heartfelt. Indeed, one of the strengths of this musical is the way Gordon has blended Austen’s dialogue with each musical number. These seamless transitions make the piece seem almost sung-through.
Sean Allan Krill, in a much-welcome return to the Chicago stage, is terrific as the handsome Colonel Brandon, Marianne’s more mature suitor. He brings humor and pathos to this role, with his heartfelt Act I number, “Lydia,” as touching and gorgeous as a ballad can be, and his “Wrong Side of Thirty” stands out as one of this musical’s most original and memorable songs. Wayne Wilcox is delightful as Edward Ferrars, Elinor’s handsome, tongue-tied love interest. His duets with Ms. Rietkerk, “When Next We Meet” and “Painted Parasol,” are well-sung and reveal so much more about this character. Peter Saide’s Mr. Willoughby is a dashing, ruggedly handsome rogue, with enough disarming allure to attract the romantic Marianne. Mr. Saide displays a strong, beautiful voice, especially in his confessional, “Willoughby’s Lament.”
Many of the other top-notch actors in this production, although they competently create characters necessary to the story, unfortunately seem wasted. Indisputable musical talents, like Paula Scrofano, as the outspoken Mrs. Jennings, Michael Aaron Lindner, as the affable Lord Middleton, David Schlumpf, as the callous John Dashwood, and Tiffany Scott, as his haughty wife, Fanny, all deserve more stage time and their own musical numbers. Yet, despite roles that underserve their considerable talents, each actor brings his best to this play. Emily Berman, a standout in Porchlight Music Theatre’s recent “Sondheim on Sondheim,” is well-cast and delightfully wicked as Lucy Steele, especially in her nasty, boastful anthem, “Edward and I.”
Barbara Gaines’ exceptionally well-directed production of Paul Gordon’s latest musical would make Jane Austen proud. The author loved music and theater and she would’ve been delighted to see her characters brought to life with all the truth and humanity found in her novel. An exquisitely expressive score, that’s beautiful all on its own, seamlessly flows from Austen’s own words. With a cast of talented actor/singers breathing life into these characters in a production that’s so honest and visually breathtaking that it must be seen to be appreciated, Chicago Shakespeare’s latest offering is a must-see musical premiere that will charm audiences with the warmth and promise of Springtime.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 29-June 7 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in their Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-595-5600 or by going to www.chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.