Pride & Prejudice
How would you like your Pride and Prejudice? Hard boiled? Scrambled? Poached? But seriously, the novel has seen multiple adaptations on both sides of the Atlantic as big screen movies, TV movies, miniseries, and stage plays, not to mention prequels and sequels. One shudders but wouldn’t be surprised to find Jane Austen’s esteemed work as a computer game. So does the world need a stage musical of it as well? Perhaps need suggests an over-the-top existential extreme. Happily, however, the world premiere of Pride & Prejudice at TheatreWorks demonstrates that the musical will be enthusiastically welcomed. In addition to its penetrating social criticism, it is everything bright and funny that an uplifting musical should be.
Triple threat Paul Gordon creates musicals. His primary source material is 19th century English novels written by women. Having established himself with Jane Eyre, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, he has now reached the gold ring – writing music, lyrics, and book for the most beloved of them all.
What makes Pride and Prejudice special? Arguably, it largely rehashes the earlier Sense and Sensibility. In both, an aspiring family of somewhat eccentric commoners have daughters, and significantly, only daughters, to marry off. The Law of Primogeniture hangs over the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice and has already been invoked on the Dashwoods in the earlier novel. Under that rule, the death of the paterfamilias results in the estate passing to nearest male heir, leaving unattached females in the family potentially homeless and destitute. That Austen railed against this condition in two novels speaks to her views on social injustice.
But what Pride and Prejudice especially offers is a most memorable central character, the daughter Elizabeth (most magnificently depicted by Greer Garson in the 1940 movie version), who stands apart from her time. Possessing consummate charm and wit, she also represents early feminism as she refuses to be cowed by social convention, including the demand that a woman be married, no matter what compromises she might suffer to enter into matrimony. As spontaneous and transparent as is Elizabeth, her counterpoint, Mr. Darcy is opaque and aloof – that is, until the layers of the onion begin to peel away. Their common trait? Hard headedness that will result in hammer and tongs conflicts.
Apart from the flinty but evolving relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, a broader state of affairs dominates the proceedings. Mrs. Bennet, the mother of the five unwed daughters, constantly prods and intrigues trying to matchmake for the girls. Meanwhile, the girls’ cocksure but slimy and otherwise undesirable cousin, Reverend Mr. Collins, appears on the scene. As heir to Mr. Bennet’s estate when the latter dies, Collins also presumes he can claim the pick of the Bennet litter, and even lines them up to survey their physical attractions!
Gordon ably honors the narrative arc of novel and the mores of the day that distinguish Austen’s writing. But while most adaptations retain the genteel humor to elicit smiles and the occasional chuckle, this musical is written with laugh-out-loud in mind, and the performers deliver on the intention with gusto. The other element that shines is the music, directed by William Liberatore. Gordon employs the musical style of the contemporary American stage, with its occasional nod to the rock idiom. The score contains highly attractive melodies and personally revealing lyrics that move the storyline along. Gordon has also added a little extra sophistication by writing several pleasing non-synchronous duets.
The whole cast is superb. Mary Mattison is totally winsome as Elizabeth, spring loaded with an abundance of personality and confidence. Justin Mortelliti as Darcy seems comfortable moving from sneering arrogance to puppy dog plaintiveness. Blessed with exceptional singing range, some of his numbers such as “Bravado” are arranged to allow great vocal leaps into his higher registers. And Heather Orth plays Mrs. Bennet. The role of the brood hen fits her like a glove – gathering her chicks around her, domineering and fluttering about.
Much of the humor that maintains the lightness of feel throughout belongs to featured roles. Lucinda Hitchcock Cone delights with her mock-grandiose condescension as Lady Catherine De Bourge, social power broker and Mr. Collin’s patroness. Monique Hafen Adams takes on the smallish role of Caroline Bingley and makes it bite with her ennui and sardonic humor.
As expected from a TheatreWorks production, the creative elements are exemplary, particularly Joe Ragey’s scenic design. Changing projections on the three stage walls represent the many venues, with relatively little in the way of fixed set or moveable props. But the design creates a big look and feel. Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting and Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes also stand out.
TheatreWorks Founder and Artistic Director Robert Kelley winds down his 50 fabulous years leading the company, culminating in the Tony Award for Regional Theatre. He has chosen well his last world premiere to direct before retiring and carves out a real gem.
Pride & Prejudice with book, music, and lyrics by Paul Gordon is produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and plays at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through January 4, 2020.