Sense and Sensibility Review – Beautiful Music and Deep Emotion

When a gorgeous score and emotional story are combined into the new musical production of Sense and Sensibility at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the result is a magical night and satisfying journey to love.  I believe Jane Austen would approve of this new adaptation of her romantic novel, which delivers wry humor, sisterly love, and fine romance in the intimate setting of the marvelous theatre at Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Megan McGinnis and Sharon RietKerk

 

The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre commissioned Tony-nominated Paul Gordon to create the book, music, and lyrics based on Austen’s book, which was the first in her many romantic novels of the early nineteenth century.  Gordon is no stranger to Austen’s work, as he provided the libretto for a production of Emma.   This world premiere is directed by the venerable Barbara Gaines.

Megan McGinnis and Peter Saide

 

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood have always lived in a gentile life with the expectation to make good matches.  When their father dies (and contrary to the book, their mother is out of the picture already), they become dependent on their half-brother John, and his opinionated and greedy wife Fanny.  John and Fanny reduce the sisters’ circumstances and render them homeless.  Elinor and Marianne are invited to live in a small home on the estate of Lord Middleton, a widower who lives in Barton Park with his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, a first-rate gossip.  The two benefactors are happy to have the young women in their charge and Mrs. Jennings looks forward to finding them suitable matches.  Before they move to Barton Park, Elinor is enamored of Edward Farrars, though their affection remains unspoken.  Elinor is a very circumspect and upright woman who loves her effervescent and fun-loving sister and hopes for her happiness but does not hope too much for herself.  Marianne meets the old Colonel Brandon at Barton Park, but falls instead for the handsome charmer Mr. Willoughby.  Unfortunately, after Mr. Willoughby and Marianne declare their love, Mr. Willoughby disappears for new conquests, leaving Marianne heartbroken.  The remainder of the story determines whether or not Elinor and Marianne can find true love despite their circumstances.

 

Wayne Wilcox and Sharon Rietkerk

Staging this story is an ambitious undertaking, and I believe it succeeds.  First, the story and characters are reduced to what is essential to make the story right.  The dialogue, while having a twenty-first century feel at times, very much reflects the times in which Elinor and Marianne lived.  The word choices and then what is conveyed through what is not said conveys the overtones of rigid society where people, especially women, had to keep their true feelings to themselves.  And then there is the music.  Again, the score and the lyrics fit the story and the timeframe.  The transitions from spoken word to singing worked for me.  I didn’t have to strain to hear what was conveyed by the lyrics, and there was enough continuity of musical phrase and revisiting of the refrains that I began to identify with the songs and actors who performed them.

 

Sean Allan Krill

Performing in an ambitious new show also must be challenging.  New songs to learn, the almost Shakespearian feel to the dialogue and lyrics, and the period costuming has to be both daunting and thrilling for the actors.  Marianne is played with a sweet spice by Megan McGinnis.  Her hopeful desire to find true love and the depths of her despair over Willoughby’s betrayal were spot on.  She has a sweet voice and I especially loved when she and Elinor broke into soft harmony.  Elinor, played with great control and emotional depth by Sharon Rietkerk, was the emotional center of this rendering of S&S.  Rietkerk hits all the notes – Elinor’s reserve, her love for Marianne, and her quiet yearning for Edward.  Her lovely voice only punctuated her performance.  David Schlumpf’s John Dashwood and Tiffany Scott’s Fanny Dashwood were wonderfully portrayed with greedy delight.  Wayne Wilcox plays Edward, Elinor’s slightly bumbling love interest.  Peter Saide is excellent as the charming snake Mr. Willoughby.  I wanted to throttle him, but at the same time, it was understandable why Marianne would fall for him.  Colonel Brandon is played by Sean Allan Krill.  He was my second favorite character.  I loved his devotion to Marianne, wishing her well even when she doesn’t pick him over Willoughby.  And his song Wrong Side of Five & Thirty was clearly the audience’s (and my) favorite.  Lord Middleton (Michael Aaron Lindner) and Mrs. Jennings (Paula Scrofano) had some delicious performances, and Emily Berman as Lucy Steele has her own moments as the other love interest of Elinor’s Edward.    Rounding out the cast were Elizabeth Telford as Miss Grey, Colin Morgan as Mr. Harris, and the Ensemble, who deftly moved the scene changes forward and provided a nice backdrop to the action, played by Telford and Morgan, along with Matthew Keffer and Megan Long.

 

Sharon Rietkerk and Megan McGinnis

The staging (Scene Design by Kevin Depinet) provided a simple but rich feel of early nineteenth century opulence.  Components moved in silently as needed, and I especially liked the large paintings that slid down from the ceiling in early scenes and then doors and windows that replaced them in the second act.  The costumes (designed by Susan E. Mickey) were rich and detailed.  I loved the coat that Elinor wore, along with the mufflers and hats worn by the female cast (complete with hatpins).

Megan McGinnis

 

Overall I was entranced by the show, especially the impressive acting and singing in this premiere production.  I detected only a few musical moments that needed some tightening up.  My only wish is that were more songs that were memorable and could stand up outside of the performance.   I am smiling, though, remembering Krill’s gusto as he sang the Wrong Side of Five & Thirty.   

 

Sense & Sensibility is playing through June 7, 2015 at the Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater at Navy Pier.  Visit the website here for more details.

Photographs by Liz Lauren.

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