Photo by Craig SchwartzI'VE HATED MUSICALS EVER SINCE THE 10TH GRADE, when my high school's drama department plugged its upcoming production of Dames at Sea by crooning excerpts over the intercom — during an algebra quiz, no less — with the quasi-neurotic belligerence that seems to characterize so many musical-theater thespians, and much of the form itself. I wished then they would shut up, and still do. Anyone who complains about violence being inspired by TV and movies should be forced to sit through a touring production of Hello, Dolly! or Rent.
There are exceptions of course, but there are also prevailing reasons why audiences come out of musicals grinning idiotically, with an IQ markedly lower than when they went in. This same lobotomy effect can be purchased with cable for only $40 a month. In La Jolla, however, you can get the same thing for $40 a night — that's the beauty of live theater.
BASED ON CHARLOTTE BRONTë'S 1847 GOTHIC ROMANCE, La Jolla Playhouse's newish musical version of Jane Eyre should be retitled Jane Air, which is not necessarily an insult. For the production really does float, by design, on Paul Gordon's score and John Napier's remarkable set. It's no coincidence that Jane Eyre bears such a striking stylistic resemblance to the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1981 epic smash Nicholas Nickleby, with its massive cast, English-lit source material, decades-spanning story, and short episodic scenes that melt into each other, as in a movie. For Napier designed the set for Nickleby as well, working with its co-director, John Caird, who just happens to share the directing credit for Jane Eyre (with Scott Schwartz), in addition to having contributed the book and additional lyrics.
Eyre, gunning for Broadway in the fall, has been considerably reworked since staggering through a 1996 Toronto premiere. For this American debut, the Playhouse must have blown half a decade's budget, judging from the way it's re-configured the theater to accommodate the interlocking rotary stages and lighting grids that spin simultaneously in contrary directions, allowing furniture and set pieces to swivel into place. In fact, the furniture may be the work's most moving aspect.
The play's Puritan-colored visual beauty is ravishing under Chris Parry's lights and Andreane Neofitou's costumes, with scenes cloaked in shadow. The architectural proportion of actors to the suspended picture frames or sculpted backdrops are simply sublime. As ghost images, on fire or in flight, appear on an upper tier behind a scrim, the entire stage feels something like the inside of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. And the similarity of Jane Eyre to Disney product doesn't end there.
The story (faithful in spirit to the novel) follows orphan Jane (Marla Schaffel) through life, starting with her abuse at an orphanage (Tiffany Scarritt plays the child version of Jane). This is where she gets wrongly blamed for scandalous deeds, while stoically bearing her punishment — until, that is, she loudly expresses her contempt for, and to, the cruel mistress. Feisty girl.
To everyone's shock, she packs her bags to accept an appointment as a governess in the midland climes of Thornfield Hall, where she falls for the enigmatic, charismatic estate owner, Edward Rochester (James Barbour), who prances around in tight black trousers, boots and blousy white shirt, rather like Tom Jones but with a deeper voice. Shyness aside, there are all manner of impediments to Jane and Edward expressing their mutual attraction. They're from different classes, he's already engaged, it's 1847, and they're English. (Historically, no self-respecting English person ever discussed his or her feelings candidly until 1987. We, being such blabbermouths by comparison, are astonished by these kinds of understated romances — which accounts for much of Merchant-Ivory's profits.)
The muted central intrigue goes on for years and is relieved somewhat by animated, corpulent characters such as Mrs. Fairfax (Mary Stout), employed at Thornfield Hall to chatter amiably, like Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd.
Curiously, Jane and Rochester confess privately to the audience that they find each other physically repulsive. This makes almost no sense, given the obvious splendor of these actors. Surely the casting director could have found less attractive leading players. (True, it's difficult to find ugly people in La Jolla, but this is a big country, after all.) The result is that Brontë's Beauty of the Soul/Superficiality of the Flesh theme, so pervasive in 19th-century literature, is here given lip service.
Schaffel and Barbour both have glorious voices, but nonetheless appear plugged in, like puppets — a consequence of the faux-Disney aesthetic, emblematized by Napier's overwhelming set. What we're seeing is part of a Broadway musical trend: the disappearance of actor-as-personality behind the mechanics of spectacle. (Not true, interestingly enough, in special-effects movies, which continue to churn out profits generated by star power.)
Jane Eyre has no choreographer and no choreography. Rather, the actors run in place upon a floor that's ever revolving beneath their feet, fighting to stay on the stage — a metaphor for the state of the art if ever there was one.
Gordon's music, with moody orchestrations by Larry Hochman, underscores most of the action. Stylistically, it sounds at war with itself, split in two directions. The first is influenced by Sondheim and his nudging of the form up and back toward opera, with intricate, contrapuntal motifs, designed more for sound and rhythm than for melody. This is where Jane Eyre is at its best. But then Andrew Lloyd Webber drops by for tea. Gordon (like Lloyd Webber) is also a pop stylist; his songs have been recorded by Bette Midler, Smokey Robinson, Quincy Jones and others. Alas, we're not allowed to leave the theater without Brontë's ode to spiritual endurance being reduced to goop in heroically sung lyrics, such as “I will never lose faith/I will never lose heart/You have restored my trust/I know you're afraid/But we two must be brave,” until one can actively feel the lobotomy effect at work, the idiocy of it all seeping in.
PLAY ON! STAKES A SIMILAR CLAIM UPON ENGLISH LIT — Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, to be precise. Fortunately, it's almost impossible to reduce the Bard's comedy to anything smaller than the trifle it already is. Sheldon Epps (conceiver-director) and Cheryl L. West (book) nonetheless pare it back, seizing upon its essence: A female songwriter, here named Vy as in Viola (Natalie Venetia Belcon), arrives at the “The Magical Kingdom of Harlem” in the '40s, disguising herself as a man in order to get by. Things get a little spicy when she falls for the Duke, as in Ellington (Raun Ruffin), who swoons unrequited for the Cotton Club's diva, Lady Liv — read Olivia (Nikki Crawford). The Duke employs Vy to send messages to Liv, whose veins burst with lust at the sight of the fella with the bulging cleavage. Hmmm.
All of this silliness is a transparent and beguiling excuse to string together almost two dozen of Ellington's greatest hits, and costume the performers in colors of blinding garishness (garb by Marianna Elliott), which match James Leonard Joy's set — panels of sparkling mirrors that bounce the actors' reflections across the stage and are based on the paintings of Romare Beardon.
For all its sheen, Play On! is largely about grief and getting through it — i.e., about why jazz, gospel and the blues are so uplifting. Crawford and Belcon, a pair of great alto sopranos, gleefully ape singing styles ranging from Dinah Washington to Ella Fitzgerald to Aretha Franklin. (Rahn Coleman leads the fine band.)
Even pompous twerp Malvolio shows up as Rev (Richard Allen), also swooning for Liv. And the ensemble scene in which the oaf is taught to boogie in order to impress her (via “It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing”) is among the most transporting episodes of the year. Mercedes Ellington's sassy choreography captures this production's ebullient tone. You might leave the theater grinning like a fool, but that's not necessarily a bad thing — which may be Play On!'smost salient point.
PLAY ON! | A musical conceived and directed by SHELDON EPPS | Book by CHERYL L. WEST | Songs by DUKE ELLINGTON | At the PASADENA PLAYHOUSE, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Through August 22
JANE EYRE | A musical by PAUL GORDON (music and lyrics) and JOHN CAIRD (libretto and additional lyrics) | Based on the novel by CHARLOTTE BRONTË | At LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE on the UCSD campus, La Jolla Village Drive at Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla | Through September 5