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Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, A Musical
and
This One Girl's Story
part of
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, A Musical

Given the recent furor over the "full" title of the new Broadway-bound Porgy and Bess, one can be forgiven for approaching possessives in musical titles with wariness (if not exhaustion). But in Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs's new musical at Peter Norton Space as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, A Musical, the punctuation is justified. Not only is this a thorough adaptation of the classic romance, but Austen herself is even a character. The show springs up around her as she revises her earlier novel First Impressions into the story we now know, with the give and take between the creator and the created positioned to charm.

Yet it doesn't quite, for two reasons. First, Baker and Jacobs's shocking fidelity to Austen's plot and characters makes this more pageant than play, with details and names zooming about with terrifying and potentially bewildering abandon. You'll have no trouble following the rocky romance of Elizabeth Bennet (Patricia Noonan) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Doug Carpenter) through a swirl of betrayals, misdirections, and tests of honor, but peripheral characters, from the other four Bennet sisters to the financially imposing Mr. Collins to the socially commanding Lady Catherine de Bourgh receive at best temporary airings; even more important figures like Charles Bingley (Darren Bluestone) and the dastardly dashing George Wickham (Gregory Maheu) must battle with the sheer voluminousness of this enterprise.

Because the writers have made so few choices about what to keep and what to cut, the show's emotional impact is highly diluted. Their song spotting is, to put it charitably, equitable, giving everyone a chance to sing even if he or she has no reason of note to do so, deepening the score's workmanlike feel. The cast is full of tremendous voices that serve the bevy of quasi-operettic compositions well, and certain numbers ("When I Fall In Love," "The Netherfield Ball," and "The Portrait Song" foremost among them) unleash the concept's full potential beauty. Despite acting that, across the board, tests the boundaries of stuffiness, Igor Goldin has directed efficiently and dynamically, though he can only do so much. (Jeffry Denman provides the serviceable choreography.)

The show's second failing is Austen herself. There's nothing wrong with Donna Lynne Champlin's portrayal of her; the NYMF doyenne makes her impish, warm, and likeable. But the character is simply not necessary, and her back-and-forth interactions with her characters insubstantial contributions to a work that needs more clarity rather than less. There's no way to maintain tension about whether Austen will succeed in her revisions, so Baker and Jacobs just use it as an excuse to examine the characters through a gauzy filter rather than directly. This ensures they attain no Les Mísérables–style effervescence, theatricality, or thrills.

Taken all together, the pretty tunes, story-heavy dialogue, and highly literary nature of the show give Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, A Musical a sheen that screams professionalism but whispers everything else. Baker and Jacobs deserve to be commended for their serious, scholarly success, but it's one in need of a stronger shot of humanity.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, A Musical
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011


This One Girl's Story

So what if it can't decide whether it's a girl-group show or a female-empowerment vehicle? This One Girl's Story, playing at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, knows it has plenty to sing about. Its four main characters — one Hispanic, three African-American, all lesbians — have either been dumped, stood up, or kicked out, and are reveling all they can in being on their own... uh, together. Rebellious Patrice (Zonya Love Johnson), realistic Cee-Cee (Angela Grovey), idealistic Dessa (Danielle K. Thomas), and saucy Lourdes (Desiree Rodriguez) are going to use their night of freedom to travel from Newark to Greenwich Village and reconfigure their lives one overamplified pop song pastiche at a time.

Librettist-lyricist Bil Wright and composer-lyricist Dionne McClain-Freeney have scoped out 15 high-octane numbers for these ladies, ranging from plangently romantic to disco-floor suggestive and contemporarily spiritual. The actresses' enormous voices and soulful deliveries sell all the songs about independence at seven times their sticker prices, but deeper meaning in either them or the book is scant. The various woes — Cee-Cee and Dessa have broken up and gotten back together a dozen times; Patrice can never go back home after getting in trouble at school; Lourdes is just really horny — are so shallow that by the time something significant (and unexpected) happens in the show's final scenes, you're neither prepared for it nor interested in it.

This One Girl's Story may work as girls'-night-out fun up to that point, but there's a prevailing emptiness about it all that's only amplified by Tanisha Scott's robotic musical-video choreography and Jeremy Dobrish's resourceful but indifferent direction. More naturalism in the performances might help; with the exception of Johnson anger-brooding through the opening scenes and Grovey and Thomas giving a few glimpses of Cee-Cee and Dessa's intimate treatment of each other, everyone behaves as though they're at an American Idol audition. That's fine (to an extent) once the singing starts, but it's not sufficient to keep you caring about their bar- and vocal register–hopping antics over 95 ear-piercing, heart-avoiding minutes.

This One Girl's Story
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011