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A Breath of Fresh Eyre

David Hurst likes the score of Jane Eyre as heard on the show's original Broadway cast recording just as much as he liked it in the theater. logo

Sony Classical has given Jane Eyre-The Musical a lush recording that allows Paul Gordon's beautiful score to be evaluated apart from the sumptuous Broadway production. Although there are problems here, most notably the occasional poor lyric, there is much to recommend. And the performances by the show's principal actors, Marla Schaffel as Jane Eyre and James Barbour as Edward Rochester, are superb.

Melodic, heartfelt, and unfairly dismissed by some critics, Jane Eyre has been compared to Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Aspects of Love, and even Passion. In fact, Gordon's lyrical and provocative score is superior to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom or Aspects, even if it falls short of Claude-Michel Schoenberg's very hummable Les Miz or the intrigue and complexity of Sondheim's Passion. Two of the main criticisms have been that the Jane Eyre score is too "dark" and that much of it sounds the same, but the Broadway cast album clearly reveals that this is not the case.

Gordon has deftly set Charlotte Brontë's sprawling, gothic, Victorian novel to music. Have you read Jane Eyre lately? It's not exactly a toe-tapper. Unlike Les Misérables, which deals with some pretty major themes, Brontë's book is about individuals battling their interior demons. It is in the musical version's interior monologues that Gordon excels, with the help of the extraordinary voices of Schaffel and Barbour.

From the opening song, "The Orphan," Schaffel delivers a gripping performance. "Sweet Liberty" and "My Maker" allow her voice to soar, even as "Painting Her Portrait" shows her to be a first-rate actress. Barbour's lyric baritone is also given plenty of opportunity to shine brightly. In his first real confrontation with Jane, "As Good As You," this marvelous actor-singer's performance is riveting, while his vocalism on "Secret Soul", "The Proposal," and "Farewell, Good Angel" easily vaults him into the top rank of Broadway's leading men. And let's not forget the delightful Mary Stout who, as Mrs. Fairfax, brings just the right comic touch to "Perfectly Nice" and "Slip of a Girl."

The highlight of Gordon's score is the haunting, gorgeous "Forgiveness." The song is first sung (beautifully) by Jayne Paterson in the role of Jane's childhood friend, Helen Burns, who dies an untimely death due to typhus at the grim Lowood Institution. Singing to Young Jane, Helen tries to convince her that "forgiveness is the mightiest sword, forgiveness of those you fear will be your highest reward," but to no avail. Late in the second act, Helen's words come back to the adult Jane as Mrs. Reed (the wife of her late uncle) lies dying, and their truth rings out. Unaccountably, this Schaffel reprise of "Forgiveness" has been left off of the CD, and its exclusion is a serious mistake.

Orchestrated by Larry Hochman and conducted by Steven Tyler (who also did the vocal and incidental arrangements), the score sounds terrific on the recording. The plot synopsis by Emily King is excellent, and the CD booklet contains the complete lyrics, but the packaging would have been improved substantially by the inclusion of some cast photos; none are present here, with the exception of one small, oval portrait of Schaffel and Barbour. The costume sketches by Andreane Neofitou that are reproduced on the inside front and back pages of the booklet, however beautiful, do not do justice to the show's designs. Still, the CD of Jane Eyre--one of the few original musicals to come to Broadway this year--is essential.

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