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‘Sense & Sensibility’ at Chicago Shakespeare: Austen’s beloved sisters glow in new musical

Submitted by on May 14, 2015 – 8:05 am

'Sense and Sensibility,' set design by Kevin Depinet, directed by Barbara Gaines with book, lyrics and music by Paul Gordon, for Chicago Shakespeare Theater 2015 (Liz Lauren)
Review: “Sense and Sensibility,” world premiere of a musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel by Paul Gordon, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through June 14. ★★★★

By Nancy Malitz

It says a good deal about the art of  Jane Austen that one finds in her novels on the one hand a steadfast persistence in the belief that true love can prevail against all odds, and on the other, a trenchant cynicism regarding the barricades to any such quest.

You can just as easily chart a path from Austen to Sondheim as you can from Austen to Disney, and thus it is not surprising that Chicago Shakespeare Theater artistic director Barbara Gaines should spearhead the world premiere production of Paul Gordon’s diverting new musical based on Austen’s first published novel, “Sense and Sensibility.” It’s the astonishingly vital story of two sisters of marriageable age – one a yin to the other’s yang – in the 1790s.

The Dashwood sisters Marianne (Megan McGinnis) and Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) dream about their futures in 'Sense and Sensibility' at Chicago Shakespeare Theater 2015 (Liz Lauren)Working with composer-lyricist Gordon and the creative producer Rick Boynton, Gaines has established a lofty storybook spirit with a modern touch for the saga of Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, who have been slighted financially, despite their dying father’s wishes, by duplicitous relatives, and hence find themselves urgently in need of husbands. The promising new musical with its well documented happy ending is a charmer that seems somewhat in development still, particularly in the second act, but it’s nevertheless a lovely evening and well suited to the summer season. The production has been extended through June 14.

An Austen heroine is not a cinder girl who marries a future king; Marianne and Elinor suffer from the restricting circumstances of all daughters in late 18th-century England, but they are ladies of relative privilege nonetheless. Nor will an Austen heroine find herself seduced and abandoned after a moment in the woods. Corseted by custom, Marianne and Elinor undergo humiliations due to their loss of fortune upon their father’s death, and they suffer misadventures on the way to the altar, but they arrive with their virtue intact.

Marianne Dashwood (Megan McGinnis) is thrilled with Willoughby (Peter Saide) in CST's 'Sense and Sensibility.' (Liz Lauren)Of the two sisters, it’s the younger Marianne (delightful Megan McGinnis) who trusts her own emotions 120 percent. She falls instantly in love with dashing Willoughby and sings about it (“Willoughby”) in babbling giddiness – one of Gordon’s several appealing early songs. On the night I attended, it was clear the Austen-savvy audience already knew that Willoughby was a cad, and there was that deliciously audible rustle when smittten Marianne earnestly stated, in her song of patter, that “I have not know him very long and yet I’m absolutely sure I know him well.” (Peter Saide is passionately suave in the love-to-hate-him role.)

Meanwhile, the more cautious Elinor tenaciously observes decorum so that the gentle object of her affections – shy Edward Ferrars – can make the first move. Sharon Rietkerk and Wayne Wilcox playfully portrayed these coy paragons of integrity, stretching their hesitations like so many rubber bands. Rietkerk lent gravitas as well to the sisterly duo throughout; their haunting duet of mutual heartbreak, “Stowaway,” was a highlight of the second act.

Colonel Brandon (Sean Allan Krill) muses about being on the 'Wrong Side of Five & Thirty' in Chicago Shakespeare's 'Sense and Sensibility' 2015. (Liz Lauren)

In Austen, love is a young person’s game, and it’s easy to imagine the novelist laughing with delight at the creative team’s over-the-top conceit for Colonel Brandon (Sean Allan Krill, a baritone in the grand manner), who adores Marianne from afar but is left to lament, at great length, that he is on the “Wrong Side of Five & Thirty.” Colonel Brandon’s extended gripe at being all of 36 was the takeaway musical number of the show, and the contemporary audience, for whom 70 is the new 40, was clearly amused at the irony of this man who looked every bit the Disney hero, complete with the bright blue coat, the dashing swagger and the too-big head of blond hair, belting out his agony — with a sly nod to Sondheim’s princes, perhaps.

As a period novel cum musical, the show clearly benefits from the contemporary winks devised by Gordon, who has been around the Georgian track with “Jane Eyre” and “Emma,” and by Gaines, an expert at doing the same for Shakespeare. Hair and costumes by Melissa Veal and Susan E. Mickey go all-in on Austen’s transfixing characterizations, which skewer with detached amusement. A spiral set by Kevin Depinet extends the romantic sensibility and its storybook realm, as does the string rich ten-piece orchestra led by Laura Bergquist from the rafters.

Shy Edward Ferrars (Wayne Silcox) embraces Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) only at the very last in 'Sense and Sensibility' at Chicago Shakespeare. (Liz Lauren)Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” takes up fifty chapters, during the last forty of which we know – and she knows we know – how it’s destined to turn out. Her famous talent for building anticipation while making us wait is an essential part of the delight, to borrow a notion made famous by Carly Simon and a bottle of ketchup. The little twists and turns of plot, coupled with Austen’s deftly drawn insights, keep a perfect balance as the story darkens into the humiliation and heartbreak that are necessary to the storyline.

How to translate that arc into a mainstream musical involves some shedding of characters and streamlining of plot, no question about it, but in its present state the second act seems musically monochromatic, a little long on yearning, scene after scene. Outright funny characters, such as the nosy Mrs. Jennings (hilarious Paula Scrofano) who cannot look at a girl without assessing her sell-by date, do not play as large a role in the latter part of Austen’s story.

Jane Austen, watercolor and ink, by her sister, Cassandra, in about 1810. (via Wiki)An attempt at second-act comic relief – a quartet of embarrassment sparked by the coincident visits of the man Elinor loves, and the woman who’s her rival – was rather unsuccessful and insufficient in any case. By that point in the story, the stakes have built high and the show has turned serious. Marianne is still miserable. And Elinor, as Austen puts it, is suffering “almost as much, with less self-provocation and greater fortitude.”

Gaines & Gordon (who wrote the show’s book, too) are quite right in not turning this tale of love and woeful circumstance into a polemic about the impossible situation for women in England then. This Austen would have abhorred, the very nature of her art a testament to living clear-eyed, fully and with integrity in one’s own time. Still, the second act needs something more than a tweak. If this were Rodgers & Hammerstein, they’d probably cue the ballet.

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