May 1, 2014 - Theatrically, “sure things” don’t really exist; “safe bets” do. Even if the best theaters occasionally undertake responsible attempts at forging fresh paths, the financial risk of staging new plays requires close adherence to the safest of safe bets. Under the heading of “safe bets” you’ll find musicals and adaptations. And currently onstage at Chicago Shakespeare Theater you’ll find both in Tony Award nominee Paul Gordon’s musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s 19th century novel, Sense and Sensibility.
In truth, taking a chance on even this classic romantic novel requires risk. More than a few stage and film adaptations, (including a quite recent musical adaptation) already exist. Plus, how could one pack so much narrative information into an evening of musical theater? One risks inviting the universal belief that derivative works are substandard. The new adaptation at Chicago Shakespeare Theater renders such concerns as inconsequential. The play and the production are outstanding and seamless in every regard. Without updating the story, the show seems as fresh and vibrant as the novel from which it originated must have seemed in 1811 when Jane Austen first published it.
The story of the two Dashwood sisters suddenly disinherited from their father’s estate upon his death launches a tale full of despair. The two sisters must move from their father’s estate, Norland, to a cottage in Devonshire. As the reserved and proper Elinor embodies “sense” she understands and accepts the necessity of this move. Her younger sister, Marianne, embraces passion (and thus, “sensibility”) and finds great resentment in their situation. That is, until she is saved from a fall in the rain by the handsome John Willoughby, with whom she impetuously falls in love.
To complicate things, Colonel Brandon also falls for Marianne. And Elinor has her suitor, too: Edward Ferrars, the brother of Fanny (wife of the sister’s brother, John Dashwood). Everything grows quite complicated as all the men seem mostly driven to marry for money (except for Brandon, that is) and the ladies have none.
But the romantic complications unwind in easy-to-follow scenes and songs. The dialogue maintains all the wit of Austen’s novel while adding plenty of fresh humor. This is well balanced with dramatic elements that never dissolve into melodrama. Paul Gordon has penned instantly memorable music. But his songs accomplish even more. He solves the problem of trying to cover the vast emotional terrain of the novel by writing lyrics that tap into and expose the characters’ complex emotions, achieving something that great musicals can accomplish.
Director Barbara Gaines has crafted a masterpiece of musical theater. The performers are all so outstanding that special mention to only a few seems unfair. But the principle performers—Sharon Rietkerk as Elinor, Megan McGinnis as Marianne, Sean Allan Krill as Colonel Brandon, Peter Saide As Willoughby and Wayne Wilcox as Ferrars—shape the visceral power of this play with both subtle emotion and bursts of vocal potency both in dialogue and song.
Stunning costumes and the simple, but evocative, sets complete what will likely be one of the standout productions of 2015 and another jewel in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s crown. It’s more than a safe bet; maybe even a sure thing.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Marianne Dashwood (Megan McGinnis) is swept away by the dashing Willoughby (Peter Saide) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s world premiere production of Sense and Sensibility, a musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel (photo by Liz Lauren).