Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a Musical
Quite a lot of people at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts expend a ton of musical energy singing about how wonderful love is. Few would argue the point, especially since the extollers d'amour are located within the "pages" of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, a Musical. Austen herself, the heroine of Lindsay Wagner Baker and Amanda Jacobs' adaptation, comes to the glorious 11th-hour revelation "I am a romantic," which isn't exactly a newsflash if one has read or seen a single work by the author of Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Pride and Prejudice (all of which, incidentally, have either become stage musicals or will have by summer's end).
In the world premiere of Baker and Jacobs's Pride and Prejudice, however, the romance-trumps-all ideology feels like a heavy-handed thematic default rather than a compelling dramatic engine. As Jane Austen (Bets Malone) confers (read, interferes) with character after character in the working draft of her once-neglected novel First Impressions, we in the audience know where the story is heading with Titanic-meets-iceberg certainty. And, frankly, it's a lot more fun to watch Lizzie Bennet (Patricia Noonan) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Brandon Andrus) sort out their romantic entanglements than Austen as a deus ex machina scribe for whom the stakes of this endeavor feel perfunctory.
Our Lady Jane opens the play dashing in to inform her sister Cassandra (Jill Van Velzer) that, thanks to the modest success of her book Sense and Sensibility, the publishers would like a new novel. This proves problematic since Jane isn't working on anything new and is rather perversely convinced that if her next submission doesn't measure up, her family and reputation will be ruined. Cassandra, who likes stories about sisters, steers Jane back to the trunk novel First Impressions, which she (Cassandra) has recently been rereading. A reluctant Jane agrees, and she spends the next two and a half hours trying to wrestle the story into the Pride and Prejudice that so many of us know and love.
This also means that Jane is onstage for every scene of the play holding her manuscript, looking to characters for help, shrugging anxiously when the story gets away from her, or erasing when something needs correction. We are to understand that Lizzie and Darcy's misfiring and those of the novel's other characters somehow mirror what has happened in Jane Austen's past and that only by coming to her own senses about the nature of love can the author break through her own barriers.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Pride and Prejudice, the musical largely covers the novel’s terrain. Lizzie Bennet is the second of the five Bennet daughters, none of whom will inherit after the death of their father (Brian Steven Shaw) because a male heir is poised to take over. This fact throws matriarch Mrs. Bennet (Amanda Naughton) into an utter tizzy and makes her more determined than ever to marry off her daughters as quickly and as blatantly as possible. The arrival at neighboring Netherfield estate of the rich Charles Bingley (Eddie Egan) sets the plot in motion as Bingley has eyes for eldest Jane Bennet (Samantha Eggers), and she for him. Bingley's rich but disapproving friend Darcy has doubts over the match. The younger Bennet daughters, Kitty (Katharine McDonough) and Lydia (Arielle Fishman), have eyes only for the regiment soldiers in their handsome red coats.
Not surprisingly, many of Baker and Jacobs's not very memorable songs, handled by music director Timothy Splain, are soaring ballads about love experienced or desired. Comic numbers by the likes of the ridiculous cousin Mr. Collins (Jeff Skowron), Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, or Lydia Bennet provide some nice balance to the aches and swooning. Fishman's lusty dream sequence, "I Can't Resist a Redcoat," is particularly charming.
Igor Golden's production is handsome on a budget. The cast numbers a manageable 18 (with plenty of role doubling). Nobody gets too many of costumer Ann Closs-Farley's period specific gowns, bonnets, or topcoats. Josh Zangen's scenic pieces (here an arch, there a backdrop) slide in with efficient functionality and during those two all-important balls, a great many of the dancers are either soldiers or members of the Bennet family.
Golden's cast is largely effective and suited to their roles with ensemble members (Naughton's Mrs. B most notably) sometimes being permitted to slide into caricature. Malone's Austen quickly overcomes the character's initial angst and moves through the rest of her novel with a knowing smile, plenty of self-assurance, and the occasional outburst of glee. Noonan and Andrus are well matched, both as lovers and adversaries. Noonan laces Lizzie with a streak of playfulness, but she is all business when it comes to protecting her family. Andrus, dark and hulking with bangs, taps into Darcy's snobbishness and the man's good soul. Though the chemistry between the two actors is slow to develop, once it's there, it crackles.
Is their love ultimately "wonderful"? Jane Austen thinks so, but she may finally be too close to these characters to count as an impartial judge.