It's akin to found-object assemblage, or maybe sampling, when some imaginative soul takes a piece of literature and fashions it into a stage musical full of songs that the source material never envisioned. And it's happened numerous times; think of "Les Misérables," "The Phantom of the Opera," and "My Fair Lady," to name just a few of the legendary musicals that initially sprung from the pens of those with only words in mind.
Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" has tripped the lights before as "First Impressions," a 1959 Broadway show that took its name from the title of Austen's original manuscript, but the latest tune-filled version of the beloved novel is called "Pride and Prejudice, The New Musical." With dialogue, music, and lyrics by Rochester's own Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs, this still-fledgling production is gunning for an Autumn 2009 date with the Great White Way as it impressed a packed Eastman Theatre on Tuesday, October 21, for a one-night-only preview.
"Pride and Prejudice, The New Musical" distinguishes itself from previous incarnations by incorporating the venerable author herself into the story. Austen had written her initial draft of "Pride and Prejudice" just as the 18th century was drawing to a close, and the musical opens in 1812, as Austen revisits the work, which had been rejected more than a decade earlier, bringing the characters back to life with her pen. Literary purists might be vexed by this angle, but Austen is woven so organically into the story and, in the sly, knowing hands of the Obie-winning Greece native Donna Lynne Champlin, might actually enhance it.
And it's a story you know, one resounding with the familiar Austen themes of love, honor, and duty, and focusing on the five Bennet sisters, whose anxious mother wishes to secure advantageous matches all for her daughters, and whose warm father simply wants his girls to be happy. The focus narrows, of course, to the now-clichéd push-pull romance between second daughter Elizabeth Bennet (the charming Laura Osnes) and the sexiest sourpuss in English literature, Mr. Darcy (suitably sideburned Colin Donnell), with various machinations designed to throw them together or tear them apart. We watch as Austen puzzles out her rewrites, sometimes pausing to give advice to her creations or listen to their desires.
What you're not familiar with, however, is the music. Seventeen pieces of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra sat in front of the elegant toile-patterned backdrop and conjured the notes from the busy stage, offering up an appropriately graceful score that wouldn't have seemed out of place in any of the 800 million recent Austen film adaptations. The accomplished, often catchy, sometimes clunky (a forgivable musical evil) compositions by Warren and Jacobs effectively retain the tone of the novel, with the oily buffoonery of the unwelcome Mr. Collins (the welcome Jim Stanek) and the worry-induced hysteria of Mrs. Bennet (Patty Goble, who does double-duty as the fearsome Lady de Bourgh) translating particularly well to showy song.
At any given moment the entire cast might be singing or dancing, and coupling that fact with the orchestra's liberation from the confines of the pit makes for a very crowded spotlight at times. (A passing familiarity with the story is very helpful in figuring out who's who.) It's to director Mark Lamos' credit that he's able to draw the attention where he needs it to be, though equal credit should go to his players. Osnes, who won the starring role in "Grease" on Broadway, makes for a gorgeously feisty Lizzie, while Donnell from "Jersey Boys" handles a deceptively thankless role, that of the dour Mr. Darcy, with sympathetic skill.
It's worth noting that "Pride and Prejudice, The New Musical" is a work in progress, making the preview seem like a very accomplished dress rehearsal. Many of the actors carried notebooks to assist with their lines, and the set, which consisted of a few pieces of artfully arranged period furniture, was necessarily bare bones amidst the hubbub. The top-heavy first act is in need of some serious pruning, especially as compared to the lean, satisfying second act, though Warren and Jacobs would need to take some serious dramatic license to keep the story intact. None of this, however, takes away from the performances, startlingly good across the board and all in clear, fine voice. Champlin and Osnes stand out in particular, especially in scenes that find them harmonizing like empire-waisted angels. Austen would have loved all this 21st century girl power.