Elinor’s Song: Sense & Sensibility: A New Musical, Directed by Barbara Gaines

Location: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Chicago, IL

Event Date: April 18-June 14, 2015 (extended)

Review Date: April 23, 2015


If the 1990s famously initiated an Austen renaissance in popular culture thanks to the proliferation of successful cinematic adaptations of her works, then it appears that the current decade is attempting a similar phenomenon on stage. At the time of this review, at least two additional world premieres are underway: a new Pride and Prejudice musical and The Elliots, a play based on Persuasion. No one will be surprised that Pride and Prejudice is still the favorite choice for most of these new productions.  What might be more surprising is that all six of Austen’s completed novels have seen adaptation as straight plays or musicals (or both), and in a few cases in operatic settings as well.


Although the influence of theater, indeed Austen’s deep love of it, has been well established (see for example the illuminating studies by Paula Byrne and Penny Gay), the novels she wrote have powerful ways of resisting the designs of those who would turn them into staged dramatic works, especially musical theater. The unfortunate result, generally, is to reduce them to less than their originals: a witty courtship plot in which love is initially frustrated by impediments then eventually rewarded with a happy ending by the time the curtain falls.  But as all devoted readers of Austen (themselves inevitably re-readers) know, the plot is never really the point. What holds the interest of those who love her novels is the wit, the depth of character, the sense of intimacy bred by narrative strategies of interiority peculiar to the novel. More than anything, it is Austen’s style, her own particular use of language that draws readers in—which is precisely why the best stage adaptations tend to be those (like Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan’s Pride and Prejudice) that incorporate as much of Austen’s language as possible in the script.


Given the inevitable disadvantages under which it labors, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s recent musical stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility succeeds in entertaining its audience well for approximately 150 minutes.  Three elements of the production stand out overall: the first is that it has been influenced quite heavily by the popular 1995 film (directed by Ang Lee, scripted by Emma Thompson, and featuring both Thompson and Kate Winslet); the second is that the novel has become Elinor’s story; the third is that the show is resolutely (and successfully) comic, shaded scarcely at all by the dark, tragic elements at play in Austen. The latter two elements are arguably significant departures from the tale told by the novel, but both are strengths of the adaptation.


The casting and characterization especially reflect the influence of the Lee film, with similar choices made for the principal characters who remain. Wayne Wilcox’s Edward Ferrars, for example, is wonderfully awkward and possesses great comic timing, but his stammering efforts at self-expression were distinctively reminiscent of Hugh Grant. Some bold cuts are made, including Mrs. Dashwood—who appears to have been dead prior to the funeral of Mr. Dashwood with which the play opens—and younger sister Margaret. Understandably, the Palmers are referenced but not included in the cast. Gone, too, is Edward’s foppish brother Robert. The major deviation from the film comes from pairing two actors who look like plausible and age-appropriate sisters—and, of course, the fact that they express themselves in song.  I will return to the question of whether there is more to be lost or gained from this generic translation after assessing this night’s performance.


image003The story is deftly and economically adapted by Paul Gordon, who crafted book, music, and lyrics, following an earlier successful foray with a musical incarnation of Emma in California. This version narrows its focus fittingly to the two Dashwood sisters—and decidedly emphasizes Elinor’s inner life and ultimate triumph over her circumstances—while allowing for limited exploration of the three essential male characters (the suitors): Edward Ferrars, Colonel Brandon, and Mr. Willoughby. Both Megan McGinnis’s Marianne and Sharon Rietkerk’s Elinor have equal measures of depth and charm, as well as strong, soaring voices. Marianne is given the best laugh lines, most of which emphasize her unconventional and even mildly improper sentiments. This choice is all the better, perhaps, for drawing some additional attention to her character since Elinor focalizes so much of the story for us. Duets between the two sisters are featured multiple times (three in Act One and one in Act Two), and in this early performance they began a bit unsteadily, not yet in synch with one another. By the end of Act One, which closes with the beautiful “Somewhere in Silence,” they hit their stride and roused the audience with a powerfully moving duet that blended the distinct passion and suffering of each woman.


image005Supporting characters are well-drawn and splendidly performed: John and Fanny Dashwood (David Schlumpf and Tiffany Scott), though reduced to a few scenes, are compelling as the increasingly self-absorbed and largely heartless “family” on whom the sisters are dependent. Their early duet, “Inventory,” is a witty and effective adaptation of the novel’s memorable second chapter, in which Fanny slyly and almost effortlessly argues her husband out of his solemn promise—made at his father’s deathbed—to care for his unmarried sisters. Michael Aaron Lindner’s Sir John Middleton (“Lord Middleton” in the program) and Paula Scrofano’s Mrs. Jennings are utterly delightful, with the latter in particular a scene-stealer throughout this performance (as she was when playing Madame Thenardier in the Fulton Theatre’s Les Miserables). Lucy Steele, too, captures the cunning sadism of the novel’s original, with Emily Berman modulating her crassness while leading with her bosom, all to the signal discomfort of Elinor. Even the fleeting glimpses of Miss Grey (Elizabeth Telford) at the largely imagined party scene in London are effective, allowing Willoughby to trail after her offstage without creating the more embarrassing public ball scene so familiar to fans of the 1995 film (less dramatically heightened in the novel, with Elinor attempting to screen Marianne from the gaze of onlookers at a fashionable party).   Realistically, the constraints of space and cast size made staging a more elaborate scene nearly impossible, so this choice to mute the original scene was essential.


Costuming is a definite highlight of this production, with especially gorgeous pieces for the Dashwoods—including the lavish standouts for Fanny and John, whose elevated status is signaled clearly from their first scene—and for each of the principal men. Willoughby’s long scarlet traveling cloak evoked a fine sense of the Byronic, perfectly matching his performance of studied self-absorption and self-wounding narcissism. Both Dashwood sisters looked lovely in their vivid and contrasting shades of pinks and blues, heightened by the lighting design throughout. Wigs, far too often under-appreciated, deserve special mention here as well: all looked period-perfect and finished off the ideal look for each cast member.


image007The production is boldly supported by a stunning, simple set design—a modern swirl of steel from floor to ceiling (suggesting some sort of Romantic ascension?)—and light and sound design that amplified without ever interfering with the drama onstage.  The latter was particularly important because the outstanding 10-piece orchestra, rich in strings, is suspended above stage level.  All in all, the design marries Regency style with a modern ethos to arresting effect without serving as a distraction. Period furnishings (including a lovely piano-forte) and parquet floors framed the two-tiered stage with an extreme thrust, which allowed for action to extend into the aisles. In this story about varied and competing intimacies, punctuated with comic interruptions of many of its most intimate moments, the close proximity to the audience enables a heightening of this effect. Truly, the CST is a wonderful space for such a show, whether you have a floor seat or a perch in the gallery.


There is certainly room, however, for criticism of the production’s failings.  To begin, there seems to be an element of unacknowledged anachronism in the script. References to topical matters such as current reading tastes include the poetry of Keats, whose first volume of work would not appear until after Austen’s death. Others such as Cowper are a good fit, while having Marianne recite Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” (1814) makes less sense for a novel published three years before his poem was written.  Moments like this left me wondering when the action is set (there is no indication in the program). My guess is that such liberties reflect a desire to capture Austen and her era more broadly, rather than confining the action to her novel’s intentions—a desire reflected, too, in the set design, which featured a selection of paintings that seem to span from mid-seventeenth-century Italy to late nineteenth-century Britain.  As with strong, effective Shakespearean adaptations, I prefer to see either fidelity to the period in which the work is set, or a clear, decisive choice of something markedly different: Richard III set in World War II, Romeo and Juliet on a California beach, the Dashwood sisters in India, or in East L.A.


image009Two other criticisms of character here: the initial scene between Marianne and Willoughby was so grossly flirtatious that, even in the absence of a mother and younger daughter, its heavy-handedness would be rude and improper by any standards of the day.  From this scene to the final glimpse of him at Cleveland, Peter Saide’s Willoughby was consistently close to caricature. His return to exonerate himself to Elinor at the end was painful, as it should be (heightened by the strongly performed “Willoughby’s Lament”), but it served to exaggerate his badness almost to the point of evil, quite unlike the novel. Elinor’s resentment here was intense enough to suggest hatred, reflecting a 21st-century sensibility winning out over Austen’s more complex portrait of attraction and repulsion in the novel. (In Vol. III, Ch. 9, shortly after Willoughby’s departure, Elinor is able to reflect on him with “commiseration” and “tenderness,” and still feels the magnetic power of his “person of uncommon attraction.”) In each of these instances, Willoughby brought out a distracting excess in the sisters’ performances, which were generally strong and affecting otherwise, especially in each other’s company.


Colonel Brandon, too, is a mixed bag in this production. Krill’s vocal power and subtlety of emotion are exceptional, and his comic timing is also good, but he is hampered by some of the musical’s weakest writing. Especially puzzling is his first solo, which inexplicably renames his lost love “Lydia” instead of Eliza (why confuse the audience by needlessly invoking a character from the better known Pride and Prejudice?), and comes without sufficient set-up shortly after the Dashwoods arrive at Barton. I would guess that the choice was made to foreground Brandon’s deep emotional life and the history of his suffering, and to establish it much earlier in the story so as to make him a more interesting character –and plausible match for Marianne (thus somewhat mitigating the “consolation prize” effect of their ultimate union, a matter that has generated so much debate amongst readers). It also gives him a foothold before Willoughby’s brash introduction in the next two pieces (“Rain” and “Willoughby”). Still, the song is forgettable and its motivation absent.


To counter this unfortunate lapse in the score, Brandon is given the best and most memorable song as well, “Wrong Side of Five and Thirty.” This winning tune is the only one that audience members are likely to hum on the way home or remember the next day, and it provides a kind of leitmotif for the show’s second act. Perhaps its greatest strength is that it functions both as a vehicle of pathos and also one of humor, since Brandon moves from being the genuine butt of this joke (one repeated frequently enough to risk wearing it out for us) to being the one genuine hero of the tale—strong, steady, and deserving of Marianne’s love. Unlike the painfully awkward and indecisive Edward, Brandon represents a consistent quality of character no other man can approach in Sense and Sensibility. And since solid and dependable is probably less sexy for the average audience-goer, one can hardly fault Gordon and Gaines for making him into more of a compelling catch for us than many readers have found him to be in Austen’s novel.


image011In the end, the major question for the theater critic should always be: does this show work? In many of the most important ways, it does—in large part thanks to truly first-rate performers. What prevents them from succeeding more fully is a second question anticipated at the beginning of this review, and it is the major question for the literary critic, the literary and cultural historian, the scholar of Jane Austen: why choose this medium for an adaptation of one of Austen’s novels? Despite composer/lyricist Gordon’s contention in the program notes that there is something in “Austen’s writing in particular [that] lends itself to being musicalized…[an] innate musicality to the character’s emotions…that can connect with music” (14), I left the theater returning again to the question: what can—or should—an Austen novel have to do with musical theater? Is it really true that Austen’s language is “poetic” in the way that it is for Shakespeare, the poet and playwright?


Readers in Austen’s day thought not, and most critics and fans today would say no as well. This production is winning, especially funny, beautifully performed, but it fails in the same way as all other stage musical adaptations do in my experience. Gone is the richly subtle inner life of central characters that are forced by the conventions of this genre to erupt into lyric expressiveness to show us their overflowing hearts. That is the perfect terrain for a Romantic poet like Byron (or to be fair, the occasional Austen character, like Willoughby, or Emma’s Frank Churchill), but it is probably one of the worst for a novelist of the small detail, of the nearly unnoticed gesture, of the conflicted, ambivalent—and often muted—emotional state. Here there can be little simmering, less imploding, just affective explosions.


Nothing in musical theater can substitute for the special depth of ambivalent feeling and half-felt or half-understood emotional dynamics within and between characters. Free-indirect discourse, one of the signal achievements of Austen’s brilliant fiction, accomplishes much of this work, and in cinematic adaptations one might imagine a kind of rough translation into its subtler (and often silent or unspoken) audio-visual canvass.  But on the stage, and particularly in a musical, most of this subtlety must be sacrificed—with rare exceptions—because there is too much space between actor and audience. As Ira Murfin notes in his “Pre-Amble” to the May 4 performance, Gordon’s songs mostly function “not as extensions of dialogue…but as expressive soliloquys.” Such unabashed, confessional moments are always the exception in Austen’s novels, never the norm, and their rarity accounts for much of their power.


The CST’s Sense and Sensibility does many things well, and some quite beautifully. What it does not do is give us a newly imagined incarnation of Austen’s work that lives up to its original in spirit or substance. Perhaps that would be too much to ask. As Kathleen James-Cavan has noted wisely in her introduction to the Broadview edition of the novel, Austen’s world is one of interiors. The world of musical theater is fundamentally one of exteriors, or more precisely, of externalizing as much as possible of what convention would keep inside. In this fundamental way, the two worlds could not be further apart, or less apt for the richly satisfying synthesis that marks the most successful adaptations of literary works on stage and screen. Many of us love both Jane Austen and musical theater. But there are too many impediments here for a marriage of true minds.


Suggested Further Reading


Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press, 2001.


Byrne, Paula.  Jane Austen and the Theatre. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2002.


Gay, Penny. Jane Austen and the Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.


Hudelet, Ariane, et. al. The Cinematic Jane Austen: Essays on the Filmic Sensibility of the Novels. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2009.


Thompson, Emma. The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries: Bringing Jane Austen’s Novel to Film.  New York: Newmarket Press, 1995.


Link to brief promotional montage:  https://youtu.be/5GBIVc0M590


Christopher Nagle

Christopher Nagle

Christopher Nagle, Associate Professor of English at Western Michigan University, is the author of Sexuality and the Culture of Sensibility in the British Romantic Era (Palgrave) and numerous essays on Jane Austen and other women writers of the long eighteenth century, as well as Laurence Sterne and the Marquis de Sade. A Life Member of JASNA, he is currently at work on several projects, including a study of Austen, adaptation, and affect.
Christopher Nagle

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