It's dangerous to attempt an adaptation of a well-known property. It can't really be improved, but it has to be more than just a presentation. And if it's getting turned into a musical, a strong score is a must. Wings Theatre Company's production of Jane Eyre: The Musical (no relation to the Broadway version of 2000/1) tells Charlotte Brontë's story, but falters in some critical ways.
There are some good songs and some good performances in this Jane Eyre, but it became a problem when the interesting characters were supporting, and the numbers that kept attention were scene-setting songs. Young Jane (Lilly Kershaw)'s childhood is dealt with at what seems like unnecessary length, so when she gets to Lowood School the audience pump is primed to enjoy the number where the poor schoolgirls describe what their life is like, with several clever rhymes on Christianity (vanity as the bane of, for example). But attention was drawn to Kristin Carter as Miss Temple, who defends the girls, and Alicia Sable and Maureen Griffin as a spoiled rich girl and her mother. Unfortunately, the plot insists on pointing toward the unfortunate Helen (Sydney Sahr), who has a sappy yet hopeful song to sing, followed by her interminable death, which cues Jane to sing another nondescript song about her longing to get away. At least this song allows the young Jane to be replaced by the older Jane (Leah Landau), who sings of her vow to stay straight (character-wise) with the repetitive refrain "I am an arrow."
Which brings up another problem. Most of the cast was directed to use English accents (this being Yorkshire and all), but just speaking well would have sufficed. As it was, even if the "arrow" sentiment is verbatim from Brontë, Landau's pronunciation of it was unreasonably extreme, partly ridiculous, and very distracting.
But when Jane gets to Mr. Rochester's Thornfield, where she is to be governess, there was fine support from Breton Frazier as the housekeeper, and Sahr was much, much better as the ward Adele than she was as Helen. In fairness, Landau threw herself into being Jane Eyre with everything she had -- but she wasn't supported by the songs she sang, nor the decision to have her act as a Sally Anne Howes manqué. (In her straightforward steadfastness, she seemed more Sara Brown than Jane Eyre.) Paul Malamphy as Rochester had a voice worthy of Orson Welles, and he managed to hold some of his scenes with Jane together on that basis alone. But he too was let down by some uninteresting songs. And if the first part of the show is overly dependent on Oliver!, it soon seemed like a Sound of Music clone. But again, a song at a party sets the scene and specific characters very well, as well as bringing the pleasure of seeing Carter and Sable again, this time as sisters. Leslie Klug also scored as a woman doomed by the plot to lose Rochester to Jane. A gypsy fortune-telling number also worked because it dared to be fun.
What Jane Eyre might have been was revealed by some second-act numbers -- Malamphy brought some presence to Rochester's "To Begin Again," his proposal number with Jane was surprisingly smart and dramatic, and the wedding choral number "Secrets and Lies" picked up a lot of slack. Truer to form, though, was the limp "One Love, Two Hearts," which seems to be waiting to be packaged as the "Love Theme from Jane Eyre." There's more plot to be got through, but with the occasional exception (Jay Gould as Mr. Rivers) it seems there simply because the show couldn't claim the Brontë pedigree without it.
The settings (designed by Mark Happel) were suggestive rather than elaborate, and Jill Witte's lighting stayed in the background until the requisite fire. But Brian J. Grace's costume designs were glorious, well-suited to the source story. Jane Eyre is practically the mother of all romances, but this adaptation is an awkward fit.
Also with Gabriel Rivera, Ed Harding, Jenny Long, Peter Previti, Greg Horton, Daniel Hughes, Jason Adamo, and Jackson Budinger.
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Copyright 2003 David Mackler