Based on the novel by Jane Austen
Book by Robert Kauzlaric
Music and Lyrics by George Howe
Directed by Elise Kauzlarik
Jane Austen is Alive and Thriving in Roger’s Park
“I’d rather be reading Jane Austen,” my bumper sticker proclaims. Now, after seeing the opening night of Lifeline’s brilliant world premiere musical adaptation of Northanger Abbey, I need a matching sticker: “I’d rather be seeing Jane Austen.”
A master of the “show don’t tell” school of writers, Austen is a perfect novelist for adapter Robert Kauzlaric as, right from the opening scene, he dramatizes the heroine’s thoughts as well as her actions.
We are in a gloomy, high-ceilinged room with arched windows which reveal flashes of lightning to accompany crashing thunder. A gossamer-clad damsel, surrounded by mysterious masked figures and clutching a book, is obviously in distress. Are we in the right play? This is not a Gothic novel — it is supposed to be the antithesis — shining daylight on this dark genre so often filled with unlikely plot twists, overly dramatic emotions and terrifying supernatural elements.
Our maiden — novel-lover Catherine Moorland, (Stephanie Stockstill) — is immersed in the written word until interrupted by her mother’s voice. She slams the book shut, the masked figures vanish, and the Gothic world gives way to ordinary, everyday life.
This clever technique — moving between the fantastic and the mundane — is effectively repeated each time highly imaginative Catherine opens a book, calling forth masked figures reminiscent of a Greek Chorus. Each time she closes the book, we return to the actual world around her.
Catherine, a naive, romantic 17-year old, is in “training for a heroine.” Opportunity arises when she leaves her country home to accompany Mrs. Allen (Jenifer Tyler), a wealthy neighbor, to the city of Bath — a popular English resort providing an equivalent of today’s singles’ scene where couples met ostensibly to taste the restorative waters but actually to find mates via the pleasures of ballroom and theater.
There, she meets two important brother and sister pairs: beautiful and selfish Isabella Thorpe (Lydia Hiller) and her vain, feckless brother John (Andres Enriquez), and — in contrast — charming Henry Tinsley (Javier Ferreira) and his sweet sister Eleanor (Shelby Lynn Bias). Clue as to the outcome: in addition to being a braggart and a bore, John is a non-reader while Henry is familiar with the Isabelle’s favorite novels. In addition, there is also just the right chemistry.
Two other important siblings add to the mix: Catherine’s brother, honest and true James Moorland (Chris Ballou) who loves Isabel and Henry’s sexy, smarmy brother Frederik Tinsley (Denzel Tsopnang) who becomes his rival.
Bath is only Catherine’s first adventure, taking up Act I and setting the scene for what ensues. The Second act heightens plot and suspense when Catherine accompanies the Tinsley family, including General Tinsley (Peter Greenberg), their harsh, mysterious father, back to the family home — a genuine Abbey!
From her vast reading, Catherine expects the Abbey to be frightening and exotic. Indeed, it does turn out to include a mysterious suite of forbidden rooms — where Mrs. Tinsley had died nine years earlier. While she fails to find what she expected, Catherine matures to discover something far more important — herself — a real heroine, as she learns from her mistakes (and that things are not always what they seem), leaves fiction and enters reality.
High praise to adapter Kauzlaric both for what he adds and for what he cuts from the novel as he tightens the story for dramatic effect. Nothing essential is lost from the original. George Howe is also to be praised for what he adds in music and lyrics. Eleven songs are interspersed in the first act and nine in the second — each smoothly weaving into the story, and sung by the strong voices of the fine cast. In “A woman’s reputation,” Mrs. Allen directs Catherine in the proper comportment of a lady. Another delightful moment is when Isabella, John, Henry and Eleanor join voices for “A Carriage Ride to Bristol,” where a reluctant Catherine is carried off by John when she was supposed to be out walking with the Tinsleys. Kudos also to choreographer Todd Rhodes especially for the dance in a musical number aptly titled “Torment” for the sensuality depicted in the love triangle as Isabella is torn between Frederik and James while Catherine looks on helplessly.”
Beverly Friend, PHD
Member American Theater Critics Assn.
Lifeline Theatre 6912 N. Glenwood Ave, 773-761-4477, www.lifelinetheatre.com (Tickets $40, $30 for retired and active military with ID, $30 for seniors, $20 for students with ID), Thursdays and Fridays 7:30 pm, Saturdays 4 and 8 pm, Sundays 4 pm through July 17. Run time two and a half hours including intermission.