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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Beautiful Production of
the Musical Jane Eyre

TheatreWorks is closing its 33rd season with the Northern California premiere of Paul Gordon and John Caird’s musical romance Jane Eyre at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Two of my most favorite novels while growing up in Ohio were written by the Bronte sisters, Wuthering Height by Emily and Jane Eyre by Charlotte.

Jane Eyre is one of the greatest romantic novels of all time. It has been read by millions of people around the globe. It has been transferred to screen eight times from 1914 to a great television version in 1970 starring George C. Scott as Rochester and Susannah York as Jane. The greatest Rochester of all time was Orson Wells in Fox’s 1944 film with Joan Fontaine playing Jane. There was a non-musical play written by Huntington Hartford which had a brief run in 1958 at the Belasco. Also floating around are two musical versions of the classic, one by Bill Kilpatrick and one by Monty Stevens, and a grand opera version by Michael Berkeley.

I first saw Paul Gordon and John Caird’s version during a preview at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York on November 14, 2000. I must admit I thought that production was over-produced with three turntables and a floating projection screen. The romance was gone, and it was a cumbersome and slow musical. I loved the mood music, and leads Marla Schaffel and James Barbour were superb, but I just could not get with the musical as a whole.

Jane Eyre
David Hess (Rochester) and Margaret Nichols (Jane)

However, in the TheatreWorks production, director Robert Kelley has brought the musical down to earth and all of those technical additions are no longer needed. The result is a lovely, romantic musical. The music of Paul Gordon fits this production like a glove, with unbroken strings of music and lyrics that give the audience the mood of the story. The serious music is very emotional, and the comic tunes of fussy housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax are wonderful. The scenes seem to flow much more smoothly than in the New York production, and the play itself is tighter. Many of the techniques that John Caird used in Les Miserables and Nicholas Nickleby are found in this production. He is able to present all of the highlights of the Bronte novel in expert fashion.

Jane Eyre, the story of a young orphan who refuses to have her spirit broken, is set in the gloomy moors of Yorkshire in 19th Century England. The musical's opening shows young Jane Eyre (Jennifer Brissman) being tormented by her only living relatives and being sent away to a school run by a tyrannical schoolmaster. She has only one friend, Helen (Lianne Marie Dobbs), who passes away in an early scene. Jane is convinced that life must hold something better.

Years pass and the adult Jane (Margaret Nichols) accepts a governess position at Thornfield Mansion to tutor a young ward (Sophie Tamiko Oda) of the mysterious master Edward Rochester (David Hess). The house is run by the charming fussbudget housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Diana Torres Koss). Romance sparks between Jane and Rochester once the master has retuned to the manor with a horrible secret of his past, which is revealed in the second act.

The superb blend of singing and acting of the principals makes this musical exquisite. Margaret Nichols, who has toured nationally in Les Miserable, is a perfect Jane. Nichols’ acting and singing rivals Marla Schaffel from the Broadway production. Nichols has a calming charm and intelligence that transforms Jane from a shy young girl to a positive woman. The artist has a strong voice and makes Gordon’s music come alive.

David Hess, a New York actor who played opposite Reba McEntire in Annie Get Your Gun, plays Rochester and he is compelling in his dramatic acting and has a very powerful voice. The interaction between the two leads shows great passion.

Diana Torres Koss makes a charming Mrs. Fairfax, and her comical singing and acting make for great comedy relief from the otherwise seriousness of the play. She is delightful in her rendition of “Slip of a Girl.” Lianne Marie Dobbs as Helen in the opening scenes is wonderful, and she displays an intense singing voice in “Forgiveness.” Maria Kavanaugh has a good soprano voice when she sings “”The Finer Things,” and Jennifer Brissman is an amazing young natural actress as Young Jane. Sophie Tamiko Oda is delightfully engaging as Adele, the ward of Rochester. The rest of the cast is outstanding.

Set designer Joe Ragey has done away with the turntables that got in the way of the New York production. He uses grassy landscapes and shows projections of period art work that probably would be in a 19th Century English manor on a back screen to improve the minimal set. There are frames of doorways, a large gateway, a hearth and other pieces that slide efficiently onto the bare stage to give the appearance of a manor. The lighting by Steven Mannshardt adds moody effects to the procedures, and costumes by Fumiko Bielefeld are simple regency apparel. Musical director William Liberatore has a skillful 17-piece orchestra to add to the melodies of Paul Gordon.

Jane Eyre runs through May 4th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

TheatreWorks begins their 2003-2204 season on June 18th with David Auburn’s Proof. Batboy opens on July 16th.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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