KPBS AIRDATE: AUGUST 18, 1999
Ahh, the moors… those lonely, dark, desolate places, rife with windswept imaginings and ripe for ill-fated romance. The perfect setting for the kind of Gothic melodrama favored by the Brontë sisters, Emily and Charlotte. Heathcliffe and Catherine of Wuthering Heights. Jane and Edward of Thornfield Hall. Pack in the hankies; it’s going to be a bumpy ride. “Jane Eyre” is making its American musical premiere; can a musicalized “Wuthering Heights” be far behind?
As much about female independence as Victorian morality, Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” is really a Gothic feminist Cinderella tale. The lush, 1847 novel is a full-bodied, deeply satisfying story of a woman of uncommon intelligence and honesty, passion and restraint, a strong will and indomitable spirit, beset by hardship, poverty, cruelty, greed — and love — in extremis. Dickensian in scope. Operatic in proportion. In short, an apt undertaking for the creators of “Les Miz” and “Nicholas Nickleby,” theater artists who know how to spin great literature into gold. But director/librettist John Caird and designer John Napier, veterans of the Royal Shakespeare Company, were reunited by an American pop-song writer, Paul Gordon, who had the idea for the whole enterprise in the first place. It started as a workshop in Wichita and made its way to a big production in Toronto. But now, here, “Jane Eyre” is readying herself for Broadway. And I think she’ll stride into the City with her head held high.
The piece isn’t perfect, but it’s absorbing, engaging, engulfing. And often jaw-dropping gorgeous. Napier’s set and Chris Parry’s lighting conspire to make the most magnificent, painterly stage pictures you may ever have seen. Isolated set pieces fly in, drop down, or hover above, lit like Rembrandts, in a brilliant play of shadow and light. Yes, the multiple turntables, more than a little redolent of “Les Miz,” are inventive, but also intrusive, noisy, even dizzying at times. And the show is relentlessly dark. There are moments of joy in Jane’s experience, but that’s never reflected in Gordon’s music, which is well-suited to her despair, but unlike her life, is virtually without reprieve.
There are even carefree characters, like playful Adele, ward of Mr. Rochester, to whom Jane becomes governess. But, except for one or two attempts at sly humor and sarcasm, the songs have a surging, swelling sameness, leaning too heavily on lugubrious ballads. The melodies are appealing, if not memorable. The lyrics, mostly by Gordon with additions by Caird, are straight-ahead, no-nonsense, at times poetic, like Brontë’s writing, like Jane herself, advancing the well-honed story, with snippets of theme and melody resurfacing later to excellent effect. What makes the score sing is the magnificent voices and vocal arrangements. The cast of 19 is outstanding. Marla Schaffel is a luminous plain-Jane, exceptionally strong of spirit and voice, and wonderfully matched with her younger self, in the lovely duet, “Let Me Be Brave.”
MUSIC: “Let Me Be Brave”
The youthful performers are all excellent: Tiffany Scarritt as young Jane, Joelle Shapiro as Adele, and Megan Drew as Jane’s saintly friend Helen. Though James Barbour isn’t half as old as he should be (Edward is supposed to be twice Jane’s age), he’s dashingly attractive and appealing, a mass of tangled passions and suppressed emotion. His voice is transcendent, though it’s somewhat odd for such a gruff and crusty character to be written for such high, sweet singing. But he wraps his magical vocal instrument around every melody, imbuing it with intensity and deeper meaning, as he does exceptionally in the craftily cynical “As Good As You.”
MUSIC: “As Good As You”
So maybe the imaginative design and direction are reminiscent of “Les Miz.” Or “Nicholas Nickleby,” in the inventive sharing of narration by a chameleon cast. And maybe the tale of a proud, young orphaned girl who suffers grief and tyranny but learns humility and forgiveness does make you think of “The Secret Garden.” They’re all marvelous stories, snatched from the literary canon and brought to magical, musical life onstage. Jane Eyre – both the character and the musical – has a way of worming herself into your heart and your mind. She may seem a tad dour or derivative, but she’s a beauty in her own right, and ultimately rather hard to forget.
MUSIC, out: “Brave Enough for Love”
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.