Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Who killed “Jane Eyre the Musical”? Major Underscore in the Drawing Room with a Piano

Art Anderson and Jessica Spencer  in Jane Eyre at Taproot Theatre (photo by Erik Stuhaug)
Jane Eyre the Musical
Starring Jessica Spencer, Art Anderson
Through August 16, 2014

The rather unfortunate musical, Jane Eyre, is being presented by Taproot Theatre, currently. It is a rare misfire for the company, though I can understand reasons why this company would really like the content (in a moment). An able cast still cannot succeed in making this musical more than palatable, unless your particular enjoyments include dour, unpleasant and almost hopeless circumstances.

If you know the Charlotte Bronte book, the basic story is included, though it experiences more like the greatest moments hits than an adaptation that works to include the feeling and scope of the novel. This is not inventive writing. In fact, it misses from the very beginning scene.

Jane comes out as an adult to begin telling us about her very unfortunate and difficult childhood. Here is a major opportunity to show us that she ultimately triumphs in the end (this should not be a spoiler). Here a song could be that says something like, “I thought it was hopeless, I had no reason to believe that a good life lay before me, yet here I am today to tell you that, but for the grace of God, I am happy and …” etc. Instead, the unidentified-aged Jane immediately plunges us into her childhood starting with a rousing song of, “Beat the liar out of that nine year old.”

It is clear why a company like Taproot, in particular, would be drawn to this musical, and would wish to place it in its summer musical spot. There is a lot of spiritual and religious content, and for a faith-based company like Taproot, there is a lot to like in the message. The content suits its subscriber base very well. A little tortured girl is shown how to forgive, how to have faith in something/someone larger than herself, and ends up happy despite long odds.

The musical, with book and lyrics by John Caird and music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, delivers one long, long melodrama. There are very few moments of relief, which include a spritely Pam Nolte playing a hard of hearing Mrs. Fairfax, and an ironic, funny April Poland playing a scheming society woman out to marry the lead male, Edward Fairfax.

It’s difficult to conceive of turning this lugubrious story into a musical, but to liven it up, one could make it a bit of a horror send-up, or infuse many more emotional highs and lows for contrast and interest. One way to provide more highs is to enhance the love story at the center between Edward Fairfax (Art Anderson) and Jane Eyre (Jessica Spencer). While Anderson and Spencer sing beautifully and try their darndest, zero developmental time is given by the musical writers to show how these two very different personalities actually fall in love. We are just supposed to suspend disbelief and accept it.

Jane is a pained and serious character in the book and musical and Spencer is forced to be so pained and serious that enjoyment is almost unthinkable. The writers of the musical give Jane a very angry song to sing, but even at the end, when love flowers finally and she begins a family of her own, joy is muted.

The terrific  trio of musicians, music directed by Edd Key, play the lush music with aplomb. It is just too much of it. And of a generally mournful flavor. Veteran director Karen Lund is well used to this era of material, and the staging is well done. The ensemble support is wonderful. Newcomer Melissa Maricich makes a great impression in her turn as Helen Burns. Abi Brittle shows grit and spunk as two different ten year old girls.

Taproot regulars include Randy Scholz, Faith Russell, Mark Tyler Miller, Asha Stichter, Jenny Cross and Simon Pringle.

While this could be a great introduction to literature for young family members, it might instead end up turning them off. But again, the religious/spiritual message is a strong one and might trump the enterprise for some families.

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