JASNA Members Give a Standing Ovation to “Sense and Sensibility, The Musical” at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts!

By Joan Klingel Ray, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita of English, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs,
JASNA President, 2000-06,
President, North American Friends of Chawton House Library (2000-)

yellow rule

We JASNA members tend to be quite possessive about Jane Austen, and I am as possessive as any of us. Whether it is an Austen adaptation on TV or in a movie, we want to hear every line of Austen’s brilliant dialogue spoken just as she wrote it and have every wonderful Austen scene rendered just as we imagine it as we read it.

But somehow the reaction is different in the theater. Perhaps that is because we are more willing to let our “willing suspension of disbelief” (thank you, Samuel Taylor Coleridge) operate as we realize that sitting in a theater-in-the-round, with no proscenium stage and no curtain, we need to have minimalist staging. And then as we realize that a musical needs to move along fluidly (this one does) and cast actors who can sing and singers who can act, perhaps that leads us to be more forgiving when Austen’s Marianne, whom she describes as tall (“having the advantage of height”) and with “very brown” skin (S&S 1:10), appears as a petite reddish-blonde and sings like an angel with a great set of pipes (Mary Michael Patterson). Likewise, you find yourself applauding vigorously when Lucy Steele (the fabulous Stacie Bono), in a wonderful production number, sings to Edward, “With Me Beside You,” with a surprising chorus springing into life (no more said here!) around her.

“Sense and Sensibility, The Musical” premiered at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on April 11th, and JASNA members who were attending the “Austen at Altitude” Conference (April 13th) were in attendance, standing and clapping with the rest of the audience in a sold-out house (750 seats). All of us JASNA members know the novel, so I need not retell the plot: during a roundtable at the conference, Jeff Haddow (book and lyrics) emphasized that the two love stories are the “hooks” that a play must have for the audience to follow. The main plot’s exposition is presented clearly and beautifully through song: thirty-five of them, including two reprises.

Elinor is beautifully acted and sung by Stephanie Rothenberg as Marianne’s protective, sensible sister, stoically hiding her love for Edward (Nick Verina) as Lucy draws her into a game of mutual hypocrisy. Edward’s “A Quiet Life” conveys his simple desires versus his mother’s big ambitions for him. Broadway veteran Robert Petkoff is a sensitive Colonel Brandon, singing with beautiful nuances two splendid arias: “Don’t Try to Change Her” and “I Once Knew a Girl,” the latter, of course, presenting the story of the two Elizas that the character tells Elinor in S&S, 2:9. Each character’s songs render in gorgeous melody (Neal Hampton, composer) and lyrics the differences in the personalities of the characters singing them. (I can't wait for the recording to come out!) The scene-stealer is Mrs. Jennings, played by the hilarious and highly-talented redheaded Ruth Gottschall, a Carol Burnett look-alike from the great comedienne’s television days as Scarlett O’Hara. “Most Excellent News,” sung when Mrs. Jennings totally misinterprets Colonel Brandon’s conversation with Elinor in which he offers the clerical living to Edward as Colonel Brandon’s proposal to Elinor, is quick, catchy and witty; it is logically reprised with equal vigor as the show’s penultimate song when she understands precisely who is marrying whom.

Yet even with Mrs. Jennings’ scene stealing number, “Sense and Sensibility, The Musical” is a tightly presented ensemble piece. Director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Director of a Musical for her acclaimed 2010-revival of “Ragtime,” works magic on the stage: with an ensemble of four men and four women functioning as a Greek chorus, they transform themselves from mourners at Henry Dashwood’s funeral to Norland society to members of London’s elite, gossiping in song about the Dashwood females’ comparative poverty after the Old Uncle’s will has been changed and about other events in the plot. Their musical commentary keeps strangers to the novel well informed: and there were plenty of strangers to Austen’s novel in the audience, who were leaning into the stage from their seats and audibly gasping when they heard that Edward was engaged to Lucy! (Jane Austen really knew how to craft a plot twist.) Marcia Milgrom Dodge adds substantial overt humor to the story through Mrs. Jennings and a very robust and hearty Sir John Middleton (Ed Dixon), both audience pleasers.

Granted, many of us Janeites were waiting on the edges of our seats to hear in song the brilliant conversation between John and Fanny Dashwood in S&S, chapter two, when Fanny persuades John to persuade himself to break his deathbed promise to his father. But at our April 13th conference, when a JASNA audience member asked why this scene had not been turned into a patter song, à la Gilbert and Sullivan, Jeff and Neal explained how many times they tried to get this terrific scene into the musical, but how it just slowed down the first act too much. (They had clearly agonized over this.) And, as Jeff added to me at the reception, the Fanny / John number over-emphasized Fanny Dashwood at the beginning of the show, where attention belongs on Elinor and Marianne, whose love stories are the aforementioned “hooks.”

The show is a delight from beginning to end; the production values given it by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts were Broadway-quality. The musical is running at the Denver Center until May 26th; for tickets, go here and prepare for two hours and forty five minutes of enchantment!