Saturday, July 23, 2016

Review: It's Austen Time - Sense and Sensibility / I Love You Because

L-R: Megan McGinnis (Marianne Dashwood) and Sharon Rietkerk (Elinor Dashwood)
Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

This past week I saw two different musicals that have taken their inspiration from classic Jane Austen novels and, while completely different in size and scale, both have considerable merits. The first is in San Diego where Paul Gordon’s to-die-for new musical Sense and Sensibility is gracing the stage at The Old Globe.

Produced in association with Chicago Shakespeare Theater and directed by Barbara Gaines, it is a gold mine for lovers of Austen’s epic romances, and this gorgeously appointed production soars.

With only a few bold strokes, scenic designer Kevin Depinet captures the sweeping elegance of Austen’s late 18th century England before the performance even begins. The effect of his choices, such as a swirling floor-to-ceiling flourish and oversized gilt-framed portraits that dramatically fly in and out, create movement and a seamless integration with the storytelling that somehow feels just right.

Add Susan E. Mickey’s absolutely ravishing costumes and a rich lighting design by Donald Holder and this three dimensional cutout world literally springs to life out of the darkness.

The adaptation centers all of its attention on the two elder Dashwood sisters and their tenuous situation following the death of their father. Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) is the sensible one, somewhat reserved and always responsible, while the younger Marianne (Megan McGinnis) is of a more passionate and willful nature. By story’s end, each will need to expand her view of the world to include a bit of the other’s outlook on life in order to find love. But no matter their trials, this is Austen so we know where we’re headed. It’s the getting there that makes the story so much fun.

Gordon’s gift for bringing characters to life is evident in the way he has written the sisters. Their relationship is honest and believable, their loyalty to each other sincere. Rietkerk and McGinnis also sing beautifully and when their voices come together in duets like “Lavender Drops” and “Somewhere in Silence,” we hear some of Gordon’s most satisfying harmonies.

Sean Allan Krill. Photo by Liz Lauren

The men are equally as distinct, from the dashing but ultimately fickle Willoughby (Peter Saide), to the easily flustered Edward Ferrars (Wayne Alan Wilcox) to the somewhat stiff Colonel Brandon (Sean Allan Krill, whose comic ability is on full display in “Wrong Side of Five and Thirty.”) He is irresistible.

Without a doubt, this lovely Austen musical will easily win over even the least hopeless romantic in the audience with its heavenly music, gorgeous voices, quirky comedy, and a story that will make you tear up more than once. A road trip south for this Austen musical is just the flight of fancy you need. Through August 14, 2016.

Closer to home, the scrappy young After Hours Theatre Company is mounting a contemporary twist on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Hollywood. It’s titled I Love You Because and features book & lyrics by Ryan Cunningham and music by Joshua Salzman.

In this version the writers have done a gender switch with Elizabeth Bennet becoming Austin Bennett and Mr. Darcy now Marcy Darcy. Their approach is a modern one with the story set in New York City, present day, as it takes on the judgements and complications of the dating world.

Austin MacPhee and Aly French. Photo by Bryan Carpender

It isn’t nearly as sophisticated as Gordon’s Sense and Sensibility and its more loosely-adapted book does feel a bit dated (the musical was first presented at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival in 2005). What makes it work in this instance is director Rebecca Kenigsberg’s likable cast and some luscious arrangements of Larry Hochman’s original orchestrations by musical director Elmo Zapp.

Instead of two sisters we have two best friends, Marcy (Aly French), a no-nonsense photographer, and Diana (Shelley Regner), an actuary, who lives her life by the numbers. Marcy has recently broken up with her douchebag boyfriend and is heartbroken while Diana is simply looking to find someone to have a little fun with.

The pair reminded me of a young Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, so engaging is their friendship, and French bears a striking resemblance to Poehler. Along comes socially awkward Austin (Austin MacPhee), also recently uncoupled, and his malapropism-prone brother Jeff (Nick Bredonsky). From the moment they meet, it’s ‘let the dating games begin.’

A bright, optimistic opening number sets the tone of the piece. Elmo Zapp takes the score and re-orchestrates it, adding strings to amp up the emotional impact, eliminating reeds where they sound hollow, and expanding the textures to create a deeper richness all the way around. Marcy’s Act I finale “Just Not Now” (with Zapp on electric cello) and Austin’s eleven o’clock number “Goodbye” are particularly well-suited to his style. His treatment of the quartet “But I Do,” which is all about disappointment, is haunting in its lack of resolution. 

Scenes alternate between New York apartments and the bar/coffee shop where the couples gather. Act I is somewhat repetitious but when the characters begin to drop their guard in Act II it starts to pick up speed. Two additional utility actors cover all the different baristas, bartenders, and other generic characters but they are an unnecessary distraction. Most of their time is spent watching the main couples and in this intimate space it only serves to pull focus from the story.

Still, there is something charming about the production that makes it attractive on a number of levels. This fresh, young theatre company is on the right track by choosing a musical that will easily appeal to its peers. It’s a lighthearted look at the pitfalls of love and romance, and that’s something we can all relate to. Through August 7, 2016. Ticket Link

Austin MacPhee and Nick Bredosky. Photo by Bryan Carpender

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