Book, Music, and Lyrics by Paul Gordon
Directed by Barbara Gaines
Based on the Novel by Jane Austen
Produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Fun, Amusing New Adaptation Works for Fans and Newcomers Alike
Barbara Gaines’s leadership at Chicago Shakespeare has brought worldwide recognition, and now, she triumphs as the director of a world premiere musical, Paul Gordon’s Sense and Sensibility. This new adaptation retains the story and wit of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, but its use of music allows direct and effective emotional connections between characters and the audience, which streamlines the story into an evening of love and life lessons. Though the nature of musicals is to be heavy on what was in Austen’s time called “sensibility” and we call “sentimentality,” Gordon and Gaines’s telling never loses sight of the practical pressures on the sister protagonists, of which their emotional health is as important as their finances.
Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) and Marianne Dashwood (Megan McGinnis) are sisters whose father has just died. He has left his house and land in Sussex to their half-brother, John (David Schlumpf) and his wife, Fanny (Tiffany Scott), who does not want to share. After realizing they are not welcome at the house where they have lived their whole lives, the Dashwood sisters move in with other relatives in Devonshire, separating Elinor from Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars (Wayne Wilcox), whom she loves. Their relatives introduce them to Colonel Brandon (Sean Allan Krill), who is interested in Marianne because she reminds him of a now deceased lover, but he is much older and does not act upon his attraction. Instead, Marianne becomes infatuated with Mr. Willoughby (Peter Saide), a heavy partier who, like her, is in tenuous financial circumstances.
Marianne and Willoughby spend several weeks in each other’s company and seem to be in love. But one day Willoughby is called to London, and he abruptly breaks off contact without explanation, and remains unresponsive even when Marianne moves to London a little while later. Elinor and Edward attempt to maintain their relationship despite their discomfort with stating their intentions, but Edward is under financial pressure from his family to marry Lucy Steele (Emily Berman). Willoughby, it turns out, is also pursuing money over love, and as Colonel Brandon becomes more involved in the sisters’ lives, the conflict between possibly fleeting affection and possibly fleeting security becomes more agonizing for all involved.
As the reserved, some might say repressed, Elinor, Reitkerk is deeply sympathetic, with clear yearnings but a strong sense of fear. She displays a powerful and lovely voice in her song “Not Even You,” after she learns Edward is engaged to Lucy. McGinnis as Marianne has excellent comedic timing, and gets the wittiest lines. She and Saide’s Willoughby bond over their shared tendency to blurt out whatever is on their minds is cute instead of annoying, since she often makes a good point, not that Elinor doesn’t get in her fair share of jabs. Saide is a dashing figure, whirling around in a huge red coat supplied by costume designer Susan E. Mickey, and his anguish in “Willoughby’s Lament” makes clear that his character is more troubled than malevolent. Wayne Wilcox’s Edward is so hapless he brings in plenty of comedy of his own, and Sean Allan Krill as Colonel Brandon, who is wise enough to see how cruel his class’s expectations are, communicates the emotional heart of the show in its most memorable song, the violin-heavy “On the Wrong Side of Five and Thirty.”
The other characters are more shallow, and don’t sing as often. Paula Scrofano is hilarious as the well-intentioned busybody relative Mrs. Jennings, as is her sidekick, Lindner. Schlumpf and Scott as John and Fanny are exaggeratedly selfish and uncaring, which there’s a thematic argument for, but still jars a little bit with the dignity afforded the romantic rivals. Kevin Depinet’s spiral swoosh of a set, and lighting designer Donald Holder’s projections of prismatic light during Marianne’s walks in the rain, create an abstract atmosphere that I thought was appropriate for the condensed adaptation, but others may find confusing. Mickey’s costumes are gorgeous, however, and Dan Mead and Ray Nardelli’s sound balance is ideal.
Paul Gordon’s songs, played by a ten-piece orchestra under the conduction of Laura Bergquist, are not big, memorable anthems. Instead, they mostly serve to communicate a character’s state of mind. The show is heavy on duets, and the actors all have a strong connection with each other, but especially the ones playing the sisters at the core of the story. The show begins with “Darker Shade Than Grief,” in which Elinor and Marianne mourn for their father, and Gaines’s direction suggests throughout the show what they are still moving through the grieving process amid all the romantic and financial entanglements. Although I became conscious of the show’s length late in the second act, I was never bored, found the balance of humor and struggle made the story all the more engaging. I’m sure that Austen fans are already planning to see this new musical, but I want to assure people unfamiliar with Sense and Sensibility that they will have a good time, too. The central characters, female and male, are complex enough for everyone to find someone to identify with, and a few paragraphs in the program provide all the help you’ll need keeping the plot straight.
Reviewed April 29, 2015
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Sense and Sensibility’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E Grand Avenue, Chicago. Ticket are $48-78, with discounts for groups of 10 or more and patrons under 35. To order, call 312-595-5600 or visit chicagoshakes.com. Plays through June 7. Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.