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Marla Schaffel and James Barbour
in Jane Eyre
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Suddenly, it seems so long ago: the reign of the Euro-poperetta musical, when every season would issue forth a new adaptation or three of an old Old-World classic. Phantom and Les Miz were the Big Two, but let's not forget the adaptors who tried, with varying success, to push everything from Cyrano to Wuthering Heights onto the Broadway stage. Jane Eyre, Paul Gordon's and John Caird's song-and-not much-dance retelling of the Charlotte Brontë novel at the Brooks Atkinson, has kicked around for a few years before settling on 47th Street, and the long gestation is obvious. This show may be the last of its breed.

The Jane Eyre production team is full of Les Miz veterans--director and librettist Caird, set designer John Napier, costumer Andreane Neofitou--and this grimly Gothic musical shares much with that megahit Victor Hugo adaptation: a constantly revolving stage, a largely black-and-white (mainly black) palette, musical underscoring that seldom stops, and a preoccupation with mistreated orphans. To link the shows too closely, though, would do both a disservice. Les Miz is an epic, with multiple plotlines spanning decades; Jane Eyre is a linear, comparatively intimate romance with three principal characters. So, while the former show can always bestir itself with another military production number or expiring whore, the latter must rely more on rustic gloom and interior monologues. It has some lovely things in it, most of them supplied by Marla Schaffel's Jane, James Barbour's Edward Rochester, and Mary Stout's Mrs. Fairfax. But it also wanders frustratingly in and out of focus, like a faded print of the old Joan Fontaine movie version. Your enjoyment of it may depend on your natural affinity for 19th century Gothic novels and stock characters who sing their feelings. And sing. And sing.

Fans of the novel will be pleased by how much of it Caird and composer-lyricist Gordon have gotten onstage. Young, impoverished Jane (Lisa Musser) still escapes her tyrannical aunt, Mrs. Reed (Gina Ferrall), only to endure the harsher discomforts of Lowood School. There she befriends Helen Burns (Jayne Paterson), whose humility and genuine piety stand in pointed contrast to the staff's hellfire-and-brimstone rantings and cruel and unusual punishments. Grown to young womanhood, Jane is hired as governess to the prim Adele (cute Andrea Bowen) by her brooding, mysterious benefactor, Rochester--surely a brother under the skin to that other Brontë sister's surly creation, Heathcliff. The secrets in Rochester's past and his courtship of spoiled, vain Blanche Ingram (Elizabeth DeGrazia) impede his and Jane's mutual happiness, and it takes an unhurried Act Two of madness, blindness, melodrama at the altar, and any number of hoary Victorian literary conventions to bring the pair their just deserts.

For the most part, Caird and Gordon tell their tale with taste and sincerity--though, when the story calls for a crazy lady to run around the stage shrieking in tattered lace while the chorus intones "aah, aah, aah," they don't shirk from it. To cover great swatches of plot economically, they have Jane (addressing us as "gentle audience") or a female trio (the Janeaires?) or random chorus members simply recite Brontë, unadorned. Sometimes, this simplicity is effective; more often, it is not. Given such familiar characters and such predictable early-Victorian morality, there's not much room for surprise in the narrative or depth in the characterization. Jane is good and patient, Rochester tempestuous and shadowy but virtuous, Mrs. Fairfax comically gossipy and lovable.

All three players do what they can, which is considerable. Schaffel is an intense, edgy Jane, with an appealingly vulnerable quaver in her voice; even when she has to mouth grafted-on, pre-feminist sentiment ("Women feel as men do / We must engage our minds and souls"), she does so with conviction and spirit. Barbour is a splendid Rochester, lanky and craggily handsome, with a big voice and a dynamic presence. Special praise must be reserved for the indispensable Stout, who brings the dithering housekeeper Fairfax to the edge of caricature and then stops short, emerging as both delightful and touching. She also invests her two comic numbers, so welcome among all the bosom-heaving, with more authority and verve than they deserve.

The rest of the score has a distressing sameness to it, blending 19th-century romantic pastiche (bits of Grieg, touches of Liszt) with George Winstonesque, New-Age keyboard riffs and that showy, rock-influenced vocal posturing that also blights Les Miz. A refugee from pop, Gordon is at best a casual rhymester, and too many of his phrases are ungainly. For example, Rochester opines that women are "coarse and savage / on the av'rage"--a poor rhyme, an inexact image, and a sentiment that would not come naturally to the brusque but gallant Rochester. Later, a would-be suitor of our heroine sings: "Jane, you must be a missionary wife / Jane, you must live a visionary life." What's a "visionary life?"

Occasionally, Gordon rouses himself to a real melody with a fiery lyric; e.g., Jane's "Painting Her Portrait," wherein she vents her self-disgust at her appearance--as if the porcelain-skinned, high-cheekboned Schaffel had anything to worry about--and her womanly yearnings. (This early-Act Two conflagration would make a better Act One curtain than the rather perfunctory break in the action the authors have chosen.) There's also a rousing pop-duet finale and a pretty, flouncy waltz for the preening Blanche. But little else stands out, and none of it is helped by Larry Hochman's lulling orchestrations, which seem to be all strings.

Lulling, too, yet ingenious, is Napier's production design. There's no Les Miz overkill here: a fairly stark turntable set is framed by a high black cyclorama. Overhead, panels and projections float to and fro, providing suggestive Freudian imagery (windows, words, shifting shapes). It's a neat, mixed-media show that is sometimes more interesting than the action below. There is much imagination, also, in Neofitou's costumes and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's lighting. Caird's staging (with Scott Schwartz) is efficient and cinematically fluid, though one looks in vain for a really memorable stage picture.

We're left, then, with a Cliff Notes musical that dutifully hits every plot point but is hobbled by a curious emotional reticence, not to mention a score badly in need of finer lyrical craftsmanship and more musical variety. Its three excellent leads aside, this Jane Eyre too often feels like a warm bath. Now, there's nothing wrong with a warm bath; it's pleasant and soothing, and it sends you out refreshed. But three hours is a long time in the tub.

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