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Archive for February, 2013

Sense and Sensibility

Adapted and Directed by Jon Jory

Based on the Novel by Jane Austen

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

February 13, 2013

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I love Jane Austen.  I went through something of an “Austen geek” phase when I was younger.  Oh, who am I kidding? I’m still an Austen geek!  I’ve read most of her books—a few several times—and any time there is a new TV or film adaptation I am eager to see it (on a side note, anyone who loves Austen and hasn’t checked out the excellent web series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” needs to do so, now).  OK, digression over.  This is about Sense and Sensibility at the Rep, which was just the right show to see the day before Valentine’s Day, as it is an excellent celebration of love in several forms, from familial to romantic, and as usual, the Rep does it right.

This production was fast-paced and thoroughly engaging.  The story of the Dashwood sisters—dependable, even-keeled Elinor (Nancy Lemenger) and impulsive, intensely emotional Marianne (Amelia McLain) is very well presented, focusing on the sisters’ relationships with one another and with their mother (Penny Slusher) at least as much, if not more so, than the relationships of the women with their suitors.  A common myth about Austen is that her novels are all about lonely women who want to get married, but they are about much more than that.  The relationships among the women are just as important as the marriages, and often more so.  Because of the social restrictions of Austen’s day, single women often spent their days solely in the company of sisters and family, and when they did mingle with the rest of society, strict rules of propriety governed their actions.  These strict rules are challenged by the romantic Marianne, who ignores the advances of the honorable but socially awkward Colonel Brandon (Alex Podulke) to pursue the impetuous Willoughby (Charles Andrew Callaghan), who has his own social obligations to meet unbeknownst to Marianne.  Meanwhile, older sister Elinor is attracted to her sister-in-law’s brother, the shy Edward Ferrars (Geoff Rice), not knowing the secret that he has hidden which threatens to derail their relationship before it really has a chance to begin.

This is more than a romance.  Often Austen’s novels are dismissed as mere romance stories when there is much more to them than that.  There is cultural satire, wit and drama, and all are represented well in this production, with all the manipulative and domineering relatives and scheming social climbers, and struggles to live up to–or rise above–society’s expectations for women and men at the time. The adaptation is fast-paced and very funny at times, with some of the inherent difficulties in adapting a novel to the stage dealt with in fun ways, such as what to do with the third Dashwood sister, Margaret, who isn’t mentioned in the novel very often so here, rather than being cut out entirely she has become and offstage character who is talked about but never seen.  This may seem odd to read about, but on stage it works, and the running jokes about what Margaret is up to now provide some nice comic moments.  Also, since there is so much story to get through in the time allotted, many of the scenes are very short but the pacing doesn’t feel overly rushed.  The striking, minimalist set, centering around a large doorway, with movable furniture that is place in a track-like arrangement, lends to the pacing and allows for characters to go for strolls in the country, brisk walks around the room, or elegant dances as the plot requires, all the while moving the action forward and keeping the audience’s interest.

While this show is more than romance, the romance is definitely there and it’s lovely.  The chemistry among the actors is wonderful.  The suitors are well played by Callaghan (suitably charming and smarmy), Podulke (with a delightful nervous energy) and Rice (kind and sweet) and they work well with their romantic partners (Callaghan and Podulke with McLain, and Rice with Lemenger).  The final scene, with its dual proposals (that’s not a spoiler–it’s Austen) is a joy to watch as the couples are very well matched.  The lighting, with a the giant projected moon in the background and blue tones to suggest evening, as well as the appropriate period music, sets the scene well and bring the show to a fitting conclusion.

This is a strong cast all around, but the real standouts for me were McClain as Marianne, with all her immature impulsiveness at first and her real growth as a character as events progress, and Diane Mair as Lucy Steele, who (pun intended) steals every scene she’s in as the crass, manipulative schemer with designs on Edward.  Lemenger is also excellent as Elinor, portraying the character with less outward reserve than I’ve seen in other adaptions, but with all the maturity and strength that the role requires, and Penny Slusher as Mrs. Dashwood turns in a strong comic performance.  Also of note in this strong ensemble are V Craig Heidenreich as the friendly but bombastic Sir John Middleton and Nicole Orth-Pallavicini as the sisters’ self-appointed mentor and matchmaker, Mrs. Jennings.

There were a few moments where I found myself comparing this to the various filmed adaptations I’ve seen, but I think it stands up well on its own, and Jory has done an excellent job of adapting the material for the stage.  It’s a fitting Valentine to Jane Austen and Regency England, and a real treat for Austen-geeks and non-geeks alike.

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Smash on NBC

So, it’s back! The show that both fascinated and frustrated me as a fan of all things musical theatre, NBC’s Smash, has returned with a vengeance and a whole lot of promise.  Gone are some of the most annoying characters and plotlines, and hopefully the playing field has been evened out a bit between Karen (Katharine McPhee) and Ivy (Megan Hilty) and the focus has been shifted to more than just Bombshell, the Marilyn Monroe bio-show that was the center of last season’s storylines.  This year, there are more musicals in the mix, and more composers, as well as new characters and performers, a new writing team and a fresh new outlook.  The first episode was a whole lot of fun—majoring on the theatre industry and the drama surrounding it, and with a lot of nods to real-life Broadway with cameos by Harvey Fierstein, Michael Riedel (again) and other luminaries.  It had a much more “insider” vibe this time but it wasn’t too insular.  So far it’s all looking very intriguing and I hope all the housecleaning will have paid off.   I’m cautiously optimistic.

I like that they seem to be letting Karen be the bitch sometimes, as opposed to last season where she was supposed to be the “nice girl” and came across as a bitch anyway more often than not.  If this show wants us to root for her, they have to give us a reason to rather than just telling us how awesome she is over and over, and letting her be a real person rather than a straw princess is a good start.  She still acts ridiculously entitled especially in her interactions with director Derek (Jack  Davenport), but this time I get the impression that we’re supposed to think that about her, which is a nice change.

Conversely, they’re dialing down the bitchiness with Ivy’s character and letting her be the sympathetic one for once.  I really liked how this episode seemed to be setting the stage for an equalization of the characters rather than last season’s forced “Karen is so AMAZING!  Forget about how great a performer Ivy is and how she owns the screen whenever she performs—she’s the VILLAIN, remember? Look at all the awful things we’ve written for her to do—sleeping with Dev! Taking pills! See? See? Isn’t she such a BITCH!??”

I found that frustrating because all the skewing just made me like Karen less and root for Ivy more.  This season, which seems to be focusing on both equally for once, already seems to be an improvement.  I hope the equalization continues, because for me Hilty was the real breakout star of this show, and I’m glad they’re backing off on the “oh, she’s supposed to be the villain” angle and let her have the show’s biggest moment with her solo at the American Theatre Wing gala, which was outstanding.

I also like that they are focusing more on another of my favorite aspects of last season—the relationship between musical writing partners Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle).  These two have such an interesting a believable relationship, as creative partners and as best friends.  I’ve found it the most potentially fascinating relationship on this show—more so than any of the romantic pairings.

There are appealing new characters as well, like Jeremy Jordan’s Jimmy and Andy Mientus’s Kyle, who work in a restaurant/bar in Brooklyn but are working on a new musical and hoping to make it big, and songs from more real-life composers like Pasek and Paul, Joe Iconis and others, in addition to more Bombshell  songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.  Also, according to the previews and promotional materials, there will be more guest stars this season in addition to Jennifer Hudson (as Broadway star Veronica Moore), who appeared in the premiere and is expected to have a recurring role this season.  It will be fun to see appearances by Liza Minnelli (as herself), Sean Hayes (as a Broadway actor in another musical) and the returning and always amazing Broadway legend Bernadette Peters as Ivy’s mother, Broadway legend Leigh Conroy.

I’ve read a lot of comments online from last season and in the lead-up to this one about how this is a very popular show for “hate-watching”–basically watching it expecting to be amused by how bad it is.  I’m a little different in my approach to this show, because I don’t hate-watch.  I “hope-watch”.  I look forward to each new episode hoping that this show will live up to its incredible potential.  Last season I ended up being disappointed a lot of the time, but there was still a lot that I enjoyed.  Now it’s a new year and a fresh start and I’m all set to hope-watch for another season.  Here’s hoping it’s a good one.

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