Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Sense and Sensibility
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Roe

Antoinette Comer and Sharon Rietkerk
Photo by Kevin Berne
For those who have experienced even a few of the 175 plays and musicals that Robert Kelley directed during the first fifty years of the Tony Award winning company he founded, Theatreworks Silicon Valley, there are much appreciated and beloved commonalities shared among those productions. A soothing gentleness tends to surround the steady flow of scenes, providing time to reflect and enjoy without a sense of rush in the story unfolding. The goodness of the human spirit, the genuine expression of deeply held emotions, the gasping surprise of a first love, the healing power of community, the integration of all visual and aural aspects of the production to tell a story not soon to be forgotten–these are the Kelley trademarks. And Robert Kelley as director is at his best when he brings to the stage an audience-favorite novel of the past in all its period-dressed glory–especially when he teams with celebrated playwright, composer and lyricist Paul Gordon as he did with Emma (2007) and Pride and Prejudice (2019).

Returning from his retirement of 2020, Robert Kelley now directs Paul Gordon's Sense and Sensibility to complete the Jane Austen cycle for himself and for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. It is a mesmerizing musical that is replete with another key Kelley trademark that has been true for more than fifty years: a stunningly talented, racially diverse cast that soars individually and collectively.

In the late eighteenth century world of Jane Austen's time–especially among the more genteel parts of society–finding a husband of fine family and financial means was the sole path offered to a young woman who wanted to live what others (and probably she) saw as a happy, fulfilling life. When the father of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood dies, the young women are left to fare via the charity of a cousin after being excluded by the surviving son in a male-dominated society from any of their father's vast wealth. The sisters' half-brother John has inherited the family's home, and his pushy, snobby wife Fanny wants the two girls as far away as possible.

With their future in total jeopardy, the two sisters sing in soulful harmony, "An age has past; a life is done; a fate is set in motion that we can't outrun." But lucky for them, they are in a Jane Austen story, and Jane Austen is not about to allow the chauvinistic, societal norms she criticizes with satirical abound to rule the day in the end. As in all her stories, these sisters are about to embark in a journey with many sudden and often sad detours but one that steadily inches toward their taking control of their own destinies.

Elinor is the older of the two, the one who resonates more with "sense" in her tendencies toward reflection, reserve and restraint as surprising and tumultuous events erupt around her. When Sharon Rietkerk sings Elinor's thoughts and reactions, her voice is beautifully clear, authentically melodic, and sure of its direction, flow and purpose. In contrast, Marianne thrives in the realm of "sensibility," which in the late eighteenth century meant to exist in the realm of expressed emotions and feelings. Antoinette Comer's Marianne sings often with spirited gusto, with a voice that can sustain effortlessly a note in increasing volume and intensity, and with an emotional range from ecstasy to despair–sometimes in near the same moment. The two are sisters whose love and devotion is at the heart of Austen's story and of this moving production. As sublimely intoned in their duet of sisterly love, "Bedside Reprise," Elinor sings to the more emotional Marianne, "You're my heart and soul;" and Marianne responds to the more grounded Elinor, "If you walk beside me, I'm not afraid."

That reliance, which each has for the core and differing strengths of her sister, sustains them through a quickly shifting maze of shocking surprises while also propelling them forward in their quests for true love. After the sisters are all but pushed out of their family's mansion by the callous and snitty Fanny (deviously portrayed by Melissa WolkKlain) and her pushover husband John Dashwood (easily subdued Nick Nakashima), the two move to a cottage abode offered them by a cousin. The exuberantly jolly Lord Middleton (Colin Thomson) and his delightfully silly and unabashedly loving mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Lucinda Hitchcock Cane) welcome the two with open arms. Soon, various men happen into the lives of Elinor and Marianne, with attractions going both ways but not always immediately as a matched pairing.

Darrel Morris Jr. is Edward Ferrars, who met the sisters before their unwanted move and has offered to Elinor a hilariously bungled expression of sympathy for her "dead" father (after so diligently having practiced instead to say "dear"). Edward has a repeated habit of stumbling awkwardly, unexpectedly, and yet innocently into every scene he appears, coming with intentions of declaring his love and instead usually losing his way where hellos too quickly become good-byes that he really does not mean to give. Daniel Morris' Edward sings often with a voice and a manner more like a lovesick, teenage boy than a young man in his twenties–only to cause both us and Elinor to be more enamored with him.

A kind, calm-spirited Colonel Brandon is introduced to the family and immediately cannot take his eyes off Marianne. With a voice that travels every octave in one sentence, the hilarious Mrs. Jennings introduces him as "on the wrong side of five and thirty," with Marianne quickly picking up on that fact to joke with him about his upcoming old-age doom while not noticing his attraction to her. Brandon sees qualities in Marianne that remind him of a long-lost first love, Lydia, with Noel Anthony magnificently intonating a final love song to Lydia as he reflects with moving notes of sadness his loss and yet ends with a sung implication of requested permission and blessing for his new-found love. Later, he will sing with resonate sincerity of that love that has yet to be reciprocated in "Five and Thirty," with a voice that ascends to great heights as he longs for "my sweet Marianne."

But Marianne has no interest at all in this man who is clearly her elder and instead happens upon another who matches step-by-step her intensity, eccentrics, and proneness to say things that shock others. Impetuous Marianne, against the warning of her cautious older sister, heads for a walk and gets caught in a rainstorm, only to be rescued in the arms by a rather dashing John Willoughby who–like she–can recite the poems of Cooper or Scot and will readily also admit, "I find all restraint of sentiment to be an unnecessary effort." Immediately, Marianne falls for the rather saucy, pleasingly sarcastic Mr. Willoughby (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka); and from all early indications of his frequent visits and their walks in the woods (providing great fodder for the gossips), it appears that he feels the same for her.

But Jane Austen does not let a path to matrimony for either sister come too easily. Twists and turns aplenty occur as prior engagements (unknown to the Dashwood pair), histories of spurned relationships, and sudden disappearances just when things are looking ripe for a proposal all seem to provide dead ends to anything but possible lives as spinsters. But through it all, their love for each other only grows as does the strength of each one's individual character. Each learns from the other, and the two prevail in ways that Paul Gordon's script and music celebrates again and again.

Not only has Robert Kelley returned as director for the third time in this Gordon/TheatreWorks trilogy, so have key members of his creative team. Picking up on the repeated phrase from Paul Gordon's script, "It's as pretty as a picture," set designer Joe Ragey uses ornately framed pictures in the musical's simple but elegant setting, with a large background piece becoming the screen for his sumptuous, change-of-scene projections. His trademark, silently moving set pieces (including a forest of trees and a garden of flowered walls) surround the breathtakingly beautiful period costumes designed by Fumiko Bielefeldt. She once again populates an Austen tale with painted parasols, fluffy hats, and dresses both formal and modest to fit the times, all done with a hint of humor and a huge dollop of authenticity. And the resounding success of both sung lyrics and instrumental music once again can be attributed to the masterful musical direction of the incomparable William Liberatore.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is a musical lover's dream come true, thanks historically to its founder and oft-director Robert Kelley and to the highly talented and diverse-in-every-dimension casts, crews, composers and writers he has attracted through the years. With much credit to the new artistic director, Tim Bond, for recognizing that this Austen trilogy demanded once again Kelley's leadership, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has opened yet again a must-see, not-to-be-missed musical treasure for the Bay Area, Sense and Sensibility.

Sense and Sensibility runs through April 3, 2022, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 877-662-8978.