If a World Premiere musicalization of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in which the 19th-century novelist figures not only as part of its title but as one of the its leading players seems fraught with peril, then Austen fans can rest assured. To quote from La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts’ next-up Mary Poppins, Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, A Musical is practically perfect in every way.
It doesn’t hurt that Austen’s novel has so entered our international consciousness that there’s hardly a soul alive who isn’t familiar with the romantic classic in one form or another. True, not everyone has read the book, but between the 1980 and ’95 TV adaptations, the 1940 and 2005 movie versions, and the innumerable romcoms (novels, plays, films, TV series, etc.) which have taken Austen’s tale as their inspiration, few in the audience won’t feel at least a spark of recognition from the moment of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s scrappy first meeting all the way up to the blissful happy ending we know awaits them.
It helps too that book, music, and lyric writers Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs’ musical collaboration features as surefire a cast of characters as any musical could hope to have.
In addition to every Austen fan’s dream lover Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Brandon Andrus), we’ve got rapidly aging Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (Gregory North and Amanda Naughton), bound and determined to find husbands for all five of their marriageable daughters, from eldest Jane (Samantha Eggers) to youngest Lydia (Arielle Fishman) to in-betweeners Elizabeth (Patricia Noonan), Mary (Kimberly Hessler) and Kitty (Katharine McDonough); closest male relative Mr. Collins (Jeff Skowron), set to inherit the family estate, Mr. Bennet’s daughters being forbidden to do so under British law; new neighbor Charles Bingley (Eddie Egan), who falls for Jane only to be dissuaded from proposing by a well-meaning Darcy; Caroline Bingley (Jamison Lingle), Charles’s snobbish sister with a thing for Mr. D.; Mr. Wickham (Matthew Kacergis), whose tales of Darcy’s perfidy help convince Elizabeth that he’s Mr. Wrong; snooty Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Naughton) and her sickly daughter Anne (McDonough); Aunt and Uncle Gardiner (Jill Van Velzer and Andrew Arrow); Elizabeth’s chum Charlotte (Van Velzer); and Mr. Darcy’s younger sister Georgiana (Hessler).
Had writers Baker and Jacobs simply taken this can’t-miss ensemble of dramatis personae and added song and dance, then audiences might well be forgiven a “been there, seen that” reaction to yet another Pride And Prejudice, musical or otherwise. (Among P&P’s many adaptations was the 1959 musical First Impressions, one that lasted a mere 84 performances on Broadway despite having Farley Granger, Hermione Gingold, and a very young Polly Bergen as its stars.)
What distinguishes Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, A Musical from any adaptation that may have preceded it is its debuting leading lady, none other than Jane Austen herself.
It takes only a minute or two for any fears to be laid to rest. Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, A Musical turns out to be not only Austen’s classic tale of five very marriageable sisters but a funny, perceptive, extraordinarily tuneful look at the creative process behind the novel.
The year is 1812 and 30something Jane Austen (Bets Malone) is suffering from fears of the dreaded sophomore slump, more specifically from worries about how to follow her popular debut novel Sense And Sensibility with something equally crowd-pleasing.
Her sister Cassandra (Van Velzer) suggests that Jane revisit First Impressions, a manuscript left long ago on the shelf, and despite some initial resistance—the first sentence alone is enough to turn a potential reader off—the writer agrees to give it a go.
Soon enough Jane finds herself not only surrounded by the characters she has imagined but interacting with them as well, not merely offering advice on how to behave but accepting their own tips, for as any novelist will tell you, characters may start out in a writer’s imagination but they soon take on a life of their own.
The joys of Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, A Musical are many, but chief among them are the ingenious ways it finds for Jane and her characters to collaborate in the writing process. Take for example the arrival of a sealed letter and Jane’s excited curiosity to learn what it contains, no matter that she herself wrote the letter. And this is just one instance of how imaginative Baker and Jacobs’ adaptation is.
Not only does the creative duo’s book sparkle from start to finish, the couple-dozen songs they have written are as gorgeous as songs get. Not only that, but Baker and Jacobs know precisely when to reprise one of them or bring it back to underscore a scene. “When I Fall In Love” (which returns as “Had I Been In Love”), “The Portrait Song,” and “Fine Eyes” (the latter sung by Mr. Darcy to his lovestruck creator) are sublimely beautiful, and will have audiences bemoaning that there is not yet an Original Cast Recording available for purchase.
A few things could be tweaked. There’s not enough instant, mutual dislike at Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s first meeting, an absolute must for their eventual love to achieve its full impact. The writers make us scarcely aware of Jane’s broken heart until long after it’s been broken. And creative team could make clear earlier on just why the Bennet girls are so in need of husbands. (It’s those damn inheritance laws, and not just flights of female fancy.)
Still, these are quick fixes in a musical that gets the most important things absolutely right, and with director Igor Goldin at the peak of his talents and choreographer Jeffry Denman inventing ways of making Regency dances fresh, funny, and new (and having red-coated soldiers soar with balletic grace), Baker and Jacobs’ book, music, and lyrics themselves take flight.
As Jane Austen, Malone adds another unforgettable performance and character to a list that already includes such diverse leading ladies as Evita, Mrs. Lovett, Marvelous Wonderette Suzy, and Next To Normal’s Diana. The Southland musical theater treasure vanishes inside the shell of an introverted romantic just dying to break free, all the while singing in a legit soprano every bit as “signature” as her powerful belt.
New York visitors Andrus and Noonan make for a dream Darcy-and-Elizabeth, he swoonworthily handsome and she smart-girl pretty, and both of them as vocally gifted as their mostly L.A.-based castmates.
Scene-stealingest of all (as is his wont) is Skowron, whom choreographer Denman has gifted with some side-splittingly funny gavotte moves guaranteed not to earn him a spot on Dancing With The Stars.
As for almost-SoCalifornian Egan and his partner in star-crossed romance Eggers, the twosome are simply divine. So are USC Trojan triple threats Hessler and Fishman, the latter making her professional debut while still a senior, and the incandescent McDonough, who gets to double delightfully as the mousy Anne. (Hessler doubles too as blonde-tressed Georgianna.)
Recent L.A. transplant Kacergis and UCLA grad Lingle are the best kind of villains, the kind you love to hate, i.e. absolutely delicious in their roles, and Van Velzer is nothing short of wonderful as a trio of characters, including Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra, whom Jane enlists as both advisor and actor.
The Bennet girls’ parents are in expert hands as well with North’s stuffy Mister B and Naugton’s flighty Missus, and the latter does scrumptious double duty as the imperious Lady Catherine.
Completing the cast to graceful, masculine perfection are Redcoats Arrow, Mathew Domenic, Brian Steven Shaw, and Leigh Wakeford, who fill in in multiple cameos including Arrow’s Mr. Gardner.
Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, A Musical sounds terrific with musical director Timothy Splain conducting the production’s Broadway-caliber twelve-piece orchestra and sound designer Josh Bessom providing an expert mix of instrumentals and amplified vocals. (Kudos too to Jacobs for her orchestrations and arrangements and Baker for her additional vocal arrangements.)
The production looks as gorgeous as it sounds thanks to scenic designer Josh Zangen’s lovely pastoral, pillar-filled set, lit to exquisite perfection by lighting designer Jason Lyons. Costume designer Ann Closs-Farley once again proves herself one of SoCal’s absolute finest with one Regency gown after another, specially constructed to allow the dance moves required by a musical, and Closs-Farley’s menswear looks pretty spiffy as well. Terry Hanrahan’s property design and Katie McCoy’s hair and wig design are among the duo’s best work.
Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice is presented by La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment.
Buck Mason is general manager. David Cruise is technical director. Jill Gold is production stage manager and Lisa Palmire assistant stage manager. Casting is by Julia Flores.
Any World Premiere musical is risky business … and getting riskier by the year as even well-reviewed Broadway arrivals bite the dust mere months after Opening night.
Fortunately, Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, A Musical stands a good chance of doing better than most. At the very least, it seems poised to become a regional theater favorite.
P&P lovers will find themselves in Jane Austen heaven.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
April 18, 2105
Photos: Michael Lamont