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Jane Austen and musicals are not quite incompatible

Paul Gordon's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, making its world premiere at Chicago Shakespeare, wants more sensibility, less sense.

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Jane Austen is not a writer whose work you'd automatically consider as material for a full-blown, unironic musical. It's true that all six of her books center around the marriage plot, and there's usually a large and colorful supporting cast, including someone who can be counted on to play the pianoforte at a party, and sometimes one of the heroes will even say or write something absolutely swoon-worthy like "You pierce my soul."

But such moments in Austen are rare. As Virginia Woolf wrote about Love and Freindship [sic], the juvenile novella that gleefully parodies the romance novels Austen grew up reading and sets the tone for all the work that followed: "What is this note which never merges in the rest, which sounds distinctly and penetratingly all through the volume? It is the sound of laughter. The girl of fifteen is laughing, in her corner, at the world." You can't laugh and sing a dramatic love ballad at the same time.

Nonetheless, Paul Gordon, who previously wrote and composed a musical version of Jane Eyre, has decided to make an attempt at Austen, and he could have made a worse choice than Sense and Sensibility, now in its world-premiere run at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in a staging by artistic director Barbara Gaines. Of all of Austen's heroines, Marianne Dashwood is the one most likely to stand alone in the middle of a stage and sing her heart out. "She was . . . eager in everything," Austen wrote. "Her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation." Marianne is musical. She is fond of Romantic poetry. She does not believe in concealing her emotions. She is all sensibility.

Marianne's older sister, Elinor, or "sense," poses more of a dramatic challenge. Elinor keeps her own counsel. In Austen's words, "Her feelings were strong, but she knew how to govern them." Gordon and Gaines have arranged the action so that Elinor's most musical-like moments occur when she's alone, or when everyone else on stage has fallen into one of those theatrical stupors that indicate the action has gone inside a character's head.

Elinor needs to remain sensible. She and Marianne, at 19 and 17, are all alone in the world. (In this adaptation, they have been divested of their mother and younger sister.) Their father has recently died, and their older half brother, who inherited everything, has been persuaded by his greedy, nasty wife to cut them off completely. A good-hearted cousin, Lord Middleton, invites them to live on a small cottage on his estate, an offer they gratefully accept, although it will take them from Elinor's diffident suitor, Edward Ferrars. At their new home, they encounter Lord Middleton's cheerfully meddlesome mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings; his friend, Colonel Brandon, a grave gentleman "on the wrong side of five and thirty;" and Mr. Willoughby, a dashing neighbor who shares Marianne's love of Byron and Keats. Complications ensue.

As Elinor and Marianne, Sharon Rietkerk and Megan McGinnis are touchingly believable as sisters (although Rietkerk's performance seems to owe a lot to Emma Thompson's in the 1995 film). Though Gordon's script sometimes belabors their differences, McGinnis's Marianne never comes off as idiotic, Rietkerk's Elinor never seems unfeeling, and in the duets their voices blend together the way sisters' should.

The casting of the suitors is more problematic. Edward, Brandon, and Willoughby never show up on anybody's list of favorite Austen heroes. Edward is too shy, Brandon is too stolid, and Willoughby is a cad. However, Wayne Wilcox's comic timing makes Edward's awkwardness completely endearing. And while Brandon, as written, is supposed to fade into the background, Sean Allan Krill, who shows off the finest singing voice in the cast in two big solos, decidedly does not. His Brandon is the sort of 36-year-old even teenage girls notice. Peter Saide's Willoughby doesn't stand a chance—and that's before his true villainy is revealed.

But the biggest problem with this Sense and Sensibility is that the sense—the witty script, which incorporates some of Austen's original dialogue—overshadows the sensibility—the music. The songs are pleasant, but nearly all of them have the same soaring lines, the same counterpoint (if they are duets or trios), and except for the lyrics, it's very difficult to distinguish one from another. Worse, there isn't a single one that remains hummable a few hours later. Consequently, in the second act, when there's less plot and more singing about feelings, the action drags. But even during the languors, Kevin Depinet's set and Susan E. Mickey's costumes make this a lovely production to look at.

It doesn't quite prove that Jane Austen and musical theater are compatible—at the end, especially, the music drowns out her laughter—but it's still a satisfying entertainment. And for pure, unadulterated Austen, there are always her books.  v

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