Since "Pride and Prejudice" was published in 1813, the British novel has inspired everything from comic books and fan fiction to plays, films, and TV shows. But with the exception of one 1959 Broadway musical – "First Impressions," named after Jane Austen's first draft of the novel – the romantic tale of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet has not been adapted for the musical stage.
Now, one creative team is working to change that. Though Amanda Jacobs and Rochester resident Lindsay Warren Baker are describing their theatrical adaptation, "Austen's Pride: A New Musical of Pride and Prejudice," as a new musical, the idea dates back to 2000, when the two discovered their mutual love for Austen's work. Over the last 16 years, their show has grown from an idea and a series of research meetings with the Jane Austen Society of North America to a concert version at the Eastman School of Music (where Baker teaches) in 2008 and an official selection of the New York Musical Theatre Festival's 2011 Next Link Project.
Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, which has a longstanding history of developing new works, is presenting the regional premiere of "Austen's Pride" at the Nazareth College Arts Center through July 24. The beloved story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy comes alive in a new way as the plotline weaves in appearances from Jane Austen herself (along with plenty of contextual history to please the Austen history buff). Because many of Austen's characters and novels are thought to be inspired by her experiences, the narrative Jacobs and Baker have penned works quite well.
Like the show, the casting has gone through many changes: Last December, there was a workshop performance of the show at Nazareth College, which featured mainly students. Three of the same Nazareth students were cast for this performance (though in different roles, for the most part), and additional auditions were held in Auburn, where Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival is based, and in New York City.
The show begins with Jane Austen (Lindsie VanWinkle) receiving news of success regarding her recently published novel "Sense and Sensibility." The publisher wants more work – what will she send? In the role of the famed author, VanWinkle is effervescent, and her vocals soar. Though a portrait of Jane Austen isn't known to exist, VanWinkle's mannerisms and portrayal of Austen are so natural that it's easy to imagine Austen looked exactly like VanWinkle, with brunette locks and large, expressive eyes. Austen's sister Cassandra (Jennifer Evans) also makes an appearance in the plot. As the encourager and cheerleader of Austen, Evans is an effective counterpart. She too brings pleasing vocals, as well as the grace and levity needed to complement Austen's spunk.
Given that the show was in rehearsal for just two weeks, the 18-person cast is strong throughout, with each actor receiving their own spotlight moments. This is a cast that collaborates beautifully to tell a classic, beloved story. (It's also a startlingly young cast, though it features a decent number of Actors' Equity Association members.) The 22 musical numbers moved easily, with no glaring mistakes or grimace-inducing notes. Even when there was a tech outage during a number, the cast powered on.
The leading duo, Mr. Darcy (Gregory Maheu) and Elizabeth Bennet (Heather Botts) have an excellent chemistry onstage – crucial to the success of any "Pride and Prejudice" retelling – and particularly delightful moments during "The Portrait Song" in the second act. And although audience members argued the best Darcy portrayals during intermission ("Was it Colin Firth? It definitely wasn't Matthew Macfadyen"), they agreed Maheu was an excellent Darcy.
Other standout cast members include Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (David Studwell and Alison England), who were seemingly destined to play these roles opposite one another, as well as Mary Bennet (Nazareth student Abby Swanson) and Mr. Collins (Zachary Tallman), who were responsible for many of the show's comical moments. The number "Lady Catherine de Bourgh," especially, had the entire audience laughing out loud.
The set is a semi-circle of interchangeable columns, walls, windows and curtains – brilliantly designed by Josh Zangen. Director Igor Goldin, who has been with the production since 2011, has clearly worked with the creative team to build an aesthetic that allows for the storyline to stay fluid as it passes in and out of fictional scenes. Choreographer Jeffry Denman draws from historical dances to recreate the ball at Netherfield and narrate major plot twists like Lydia Bennet's trip to Brighton. Costume designer Shirlee Idzakovich refers to history as well, using muted colors, empire waists, and basic accessories to communicate the economic status of the characters.
Even though the show is still undergoing a workshop process, "Austen's Pride: A New Musical of Pride and Prejudice" is a must-see for Jane Austen fans. For those who'd like to offer feedback, there will be a talkback with the creative team and the cast after the 8 p.m. show on Friday, July 22.