Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
After wowing audiences at the TheatreWorks 2018 New Works Festival, yet another magnificent addition to this line of much-loved Paul Gordon musicals opens under the artful, joyful direction of Artistic Director Robert Kelley (now in his final and fiftieth year as founding director). A much-loved novel, published in 1813, that for many generations has inspired numerous plays and films, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is given a new interpretation as a beautifully scored and wittily written musical by Paul Gordon (book, music, and lyrics). Its world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley could hardly be more visually, musically, and emotionally rewarding as the perfect package for audiences to find under the Bay Area's 2019 tree of holiday theatrical productions.
Set in Great Britain's Regency Period (1811-1820) when strict societal rules governed conversations between the sexes, and social standings defined who talked to whom and who married whom, Pride and Prejudice reflects Jane Austen's own family and personal situation, voicing her own defiant stand against a world where money and social prestige reign over love as the reason for two people marrying. Near the opening of this musical version, Elizabeth Bennet, the character who surely most embodies Austen's own thinking, reads to us the actual opening line of the original book: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife." Elizabeth faces us and declaratively states, "I don't necessarily find that to be true," establishing up front that this young woman (like the author behind her) is much ahead of her time in terms of a woman having her own opinion and setting her own course.
Elizabeth serves as our narrating guide through the many twists and turns of Austen's tale as reinterpreted by Paul Gordon, with Mary Mattison reigning supreme in the role with a spirit of strong determinationmarked with some stubbornness and hasty judgmentbut also Elizabeth's growing willingness to relook at her earlier snap prejudices in order to discover love where she least expects to find it. Bringing a distinctly accented voice with exhilarating notes that alternate in tone between self-reflection and out-right confession, she sings, "I'm headstrong finding my own way, not afraid to say the things I feel." She goes on to add in a voice that rises triumphantly with crystal surety of its sound and its meaning, "And I don't care what they reveal ... [It] is not my care cause I'm too headstrong for any man to bear."
But one man with some shock and surprise soon discovers, "I like her eyes," going on to sing in "Bravado," "I must have the will to resist her ... the strength to walk away." As Mr. Darcy, Justin Mortelliti brings the evening's most impressive vocals, among many outstanding ones, giving uniquely nuanced interpretations to his several numbers with a voice that often jumps with ease and emotions to high, softly sustained registers (as in the second act "The World See Lives In"). His moneyed, sullen Mr. Darcy is initially offensive not only to Elizabeth but to just about everyone he meets in her family and among her friends. Their early encounters certainly show sparks, but more the kind that ignite explosions than those that denote love. Their opposing melodies sung in "Duet" lead both to conclude after a happenstance dance of strong wills and measured steps that "In time, s/he will be a distant memory." But early prejudices on both parts as well as their own prides of position and propriety eventually give way, leading to a later duet with much sweeter, and beautifully sung, harmonies ("Sweet Persuasion").
The thread of their slowly developing but clearly inevitable mutual love is just one of a number of couplings that are attempted and sometime succeed in the course of the delightful evening. From the beginning, it is the sole mission of Elizabeth's mother, Mrs. Bennet, to see that all of her five daughters are successfully wed. Each time she appears with blustery and bombastic manners, Heather Orth's Mrs. Bennet commands attention and demands laughs. With full, lusty voice that maneuvers up and down the scale like a wild and fun rollercoaster ride, she sings, "Happiness in marriage is the pillar of my quest; first I'll marry off the oldest, then marry off the rest."
Mrs. Bennet's zealous determination is given its perfect counter-balance by a husband who peeks out from his newspaper to deliver one-line zingers with a mixture of twinkle and sarcasm, with Christopher Vettel as Mr. Bennet often using his saucer-sized eyes to say as much as his words. It is he as Elizabeth's father who seems to understand her best and who offers his support to her unconventional independence of thought and opinion, countering with Vettel's strong but sympathetic baritone Mrs. Bennet's push to quick matrimony with a more cautionary "Happiness in marriage is an act rarely achieved ... Be careful, Dearest Lizzy ... Look before you leap."
Other sisters and suitors populate Austen's novel of manners, each bringing in Paul Gordon's musical version sometimes quirky, sometimes irritating, but often endearing personalities. Sharon Rietkerk is the sweetly voiced Jane Bennet, using delicately sustained vowels to sing of her interest in a shy man of few words but telling eyes, Mr. Bingley (Travis Leland who brings a voice that sparkles in notes as they hop the scale with light abound). His sister, Miss Caroline Bingley, hilariously puckers her lips and speaks her aristocratic disapprovals of any union between her brother and anyone from this family that clearly resides many rungs of the social ladder lower than the Bingleys (with Monique Hafen Adams bringing the comic excellence for which she is so well known on Bay Area stages).
A headstrong, rebellious, and quick-to-flirt youngest sister, Lydia Bennetwho comes close to disgracing her family because of her too-modern ways of courtshipis played with rumpus airs by Tara Kostmayer, while Melissa WolfKlain never fails to draw audience laughs as her bookworm, bifocaled Mary Bennet drily announces changing scenes and their locations. Chanel Tilghman rounds out the Bennet clan of sisters as Kitty.
Among the suitors crossing the Bennet threshold to examine the pickings among the sisters is a rather smarmy, slimy man of the cloth, Mr. Collins, whom Brian Herndon has a heyday in extending with pompous airs, with pronunciations like ne-uuuws" (for "news"). Tellingly, he uses words like "submit," "capture," and "violence of my rapture" in surmising "who will be the lucky girl" among the Bennets to marry him (sung with oily confidence in his "Lovely Creatures").
An attractive soldier named Mr. Wickham also wanders into the Bennet household, played by a beautifully baritoned Taylor Crousore. Mr. Wickham captures for a moment Elizabeth's eyes and her interest as he relates a story about Mr. Darcy to corroborate her initial dislikes of the man, but the story lacks the factual details whose revelation of the truth eventually leads her to a change of heart concerning Mr. Darcy.
Lucinda Hitchcock Cone represents the height of British aristocratic snobbery in her memorable depiction of Lady Catherine De Bourgh, squaring off with Elizabeth in a dueling duet of notes and words. Elizabeth mocks and rejects the mighty lady's admonishment that "For soon you will have to admit, your life without me is not worth a whit," while a chorus of more receptive servants and guests cow tail in the background while singing in full harmony, "Her Ladyship's Praise."
Robert Kelley pulls out all the stops as he deftly and deliciously directs the nineteen-member cast often in parallel scenes where actors on the audience level illustrate what is being accounted on the main stage. As he has in so many award-winning efforts in the past, Joe Ragey once again magically transforms the Lucie Stern stage, this time utilizing three stage-enveloping screens to establish scenes of 19th-century England. Interiors both modest and grand along with gardens and landscapes manicured to their noble finest fill the arena, enhanced by plant-topped columns, stone walls, elegant statues, and fountains as well as necessary pieces of furniture that all seamlessly glide on and off the set as if part of the choreography created for dancing couples by Dottie Lester White. Designs of lighting by Pamila Z. Gray and of sound by Brendan Aanes further establish the period-perfect scenes, while Fumiko Bielefeldtas she is so wont to do on Bay Area stagesmagnificently costumes the cast in the eye-pleasing dresses and gowns, suits and tuxedos, bonnets and hats of the various social levels represented.
William Liberatore directs the modern-sounding music composed by Paul Gordon and played by a talented band of sixmusic that ranges from ballad to rock to Broadway in sound. The modernity of the music in this otherwise early 19th-century setting reflects the main character herself, Elizabeth, whose boldness of thought, determination to challenge, and sense of independence from repressive, societal pressures and mores is more of this century than that of two ago. Along the way, she and Darcy teach us that it is indeed possible to put aside prejudices based little on fact and much on stereotype as well as to let go of personal pride rooted in stubborn ego in order to all find the love just waiting to be had.
Paul Gordon, Robert Kelley, and this outstanding cast and team of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley unwrap a Pride and Prejudice that is a "must-see" world-premiere present to us all and hopefully to many more stages nationwide in the coming years.
Pride and Prejudice runs through January 4, 2020, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available at www.theatreworks.org.