Editor’s note: I had to bow out of reviewing this production due to a massive sinus infection, but the lovely book nerd Jamie Prahl, who is a huge fan of Jane Austen’s, stepped in to cover. Take it away, Jamie!
Everything about Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new musical version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is rich in detail. From the set design, anchored by a giant ribbon of a swirl that extends up into the rafters of the Courtyard Theatre, to the splendid Regency costumes, to the talented cast, each detail has been attended to with great care.
And indeed, this is a production about the details.
Jane Austen’s novels are a product of her time. They are not epic tales of grand revolutions in France or even of a town being transformed by a trickster Music Man. Rather, Austen’s works are small stories from a time when a letter could change everything, and granting someone a lock of your hair could be seen as practically a marriage proposal. Big drama happened in polite conversation in drawing rooms and parlors and people’s emotions were expected to be kept quiet lest the merest appearance of impropriety ruined a person’s prospects in life.
These small stories do not, at first, seem to be the stuff of musical theater, where characters bursting into large-scale dance routines and epic love ballads is typically accepted. Chicago Shakespeare Theater did a very smart thing by commissioning Paul Gordon to write and compose this adaptation. Gordon has done this sort of thing before, when his 2001 Tony-nominated music and lyrics for Jane Eyre brought Charlotte Bronte’s novel – in which nearly entire chapters take place purely in the thoughts of the leading lady – to stirring life. Like Gordon’s Jane Eyre, the songs in Sense and Sensibility are lush, and burst forth from moments where the characters cannot hold back their emotions for another moment, and simply must sing of the deep pain of grief, or of madness caused by lost love – all things they cannot express in polite society. (Forget that your heart is breaking, dear. Would you like some tea?)
Sense and Sensibility is the lively story of the two Dashwood sisters – Elinor and Marianne – and their romantic entanglements after the death of their father and the greed of other family members leaves them broke and forces them to move to a small country cottage. While both women are clever, they’re very different. The level-headed Elinor pines for Edward Ferrars, though her financial situation means their union won’t be approved by his domineering family. Poetry-loving Marianne captures the heart of a wealthy bachelor who happens to be on “the wrong side of five and thirty” (he’s 36, by the way) but instead gives her love and attentions to a handsome young man who appears to have stepped right out of a romantic novel, but may not be as perfect as he appears.
Shannon Rietkirk and Megan McGinnis play the sisters Dashwood, and with their strong chemistry and the way their lovely singing voices blend together, it’s easy to believe their bond, as well as to care for each sister individually. The suitors are as dashing as one would expect. Wayne Wilcox is adorably awkward as Elinor’s beloved Edward, and Peter Saide cuts an impressive rug as Mr. Willoughby, the very embodiment of the man of Marianne’s dreams. Yet it’s Sean Allan Krill’s sublime performance as Colonel Brandon, the overlooked and less flashy suitor, who becomes the man to root for. On opening night, Krill’s big number deservedly drew the evening’s biggest applause.
Lest you think it’s all repressed romantic feelings, please note that this show is funny. Very funny, in fact. Jane Austen was a keen observer of the quirks of people, and in supporting comedic roles, Chicago theater veterans Michael Aaron Lindner and Paula Scrofano (as kind and friendly relations) and David Schlumpf and Tiffany Scott (as unkind and not at all friendly relations) provide plenty of laughs.
Barbara Gaines’ direction keeps things appropriately simple and moving briskly, and she’s aided greatly by Susan E. Mickey’s excellent costume designs, every one of which illuminates the character wearing it. Willoughby’s coat is red as blood and swirls around him like a dream, while Colonel Brandon’s coat is a simpler blue. While the clothes of the sisters Dashwood are both lovely, Elinor’s are more demure, while Marianne’s more flowy skirts help illuminate her youth and passion. (And I can’t even talk about the amazing things Paula Scrofano’s Mrs. Jennings wears, except to say that they’re divine.)
For those for whom Jane Austen isn’t beloved, this production may still appeal. Wisely, CST’s adaptation trims away a great deal of society comings and goings and minor characters and turns the novel into a small chamber musical. This helps keep the focus on the essential characters and what the story is truly about: two sisters, and their love stories, as told through witty dialogue and lovely songs.
I cannot imagine it being done any better.
Sense and Sensibility plays through June 7 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. More info here >