It is a truth universally acknowledged that a story in possession of a built-in fanbase must be in want of a musical adaptation. But even to Jane Austen fans, the notion of reworking Pride and Prejudice with a score may seem ill-advised, if inevitable. After definitive film renderings, modernist updates, and Austen-flavored concoctions, must we suffer the indignity of Darcy, master of Pemberley, singing and capering about?
Happily, the outcome is thoroughly enjoyable if occasionally ridiculous. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, A Musical, a world premiere directed by Igor Goldin at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, Jane Austen (Bets Malone) is still an emerging novelist, having just earned her first break with a sold-out print run of Sense and Sensibility. (According to the press notes, the show too was something of a hit when it premiered at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it collected a Most Promising Musical award.) Jane’s publisher is eager to see more, but she has nothing else stashed in her writing desk — save an abandoned draft of a half-finished work called First Impressions. After the cajoling of her sister, Cassandra (Jill Van Velzer), Jane begins to reread the novel’s opening pages and conjures Elizabeth Bennet (Patricia Noonan), Darcy (Brandon Andrus), their families and neighbors onstage.
The accomplished book by Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs, who also created the music and lyrics, retains much of Austen’s wry humor and narrative voice. Jane remains an active presence in her own story throughout the play, both in command of and beholden to her characters, editing on the fly and meting out hard-headed plot twists. Under Timothy Splain’s music direction, the vocal performances are strong. The arrangements themselves, though somewhat generic, at times perfectly suit the book's tone and material. The thematic significance of one musical motif, “Choices,” is unclear, seeming to refer to both authorial decisions and the limited range of life paths available to women (and perhaps, the author’s own regret). However, a rousing number with Lydia (Arielle Fishman) and her swoony redcoats choreographed by Jeffry Denman, and an ecclesiastical paean by Mr. Collins (a brilliant Jeff Skowron) to his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Amanda Naughton), are especially effective.
The musical covers so much ground — virtually all the novel’s major plot points in the three-hour running time — that depth is inevitably shortchanged. With Jane Austen upstaging her character’s intelligence, Lizzy comes off as rather more wide-eyed and girlish than the novel’s prose lets on. Noonan and Andrus’ chemistry isn’t always as crackling as it could be, but their interactions still elicit pleasant flutters of anticipation.
Thankfully, the rest of the cast is so strong that time spent away from Elizabeth and Darcy never feels like a chore. Even some of the book’s more tiresome characters, such as Caroline Bingley (Jamison Lingle), Mrs. Bennet (Naughton again), and stick-in-the-mud Mary (Kimberly Hessler) make pleasurable company. If you’ve ever longed to hear Fitzwilliam Darcy belt out his admiration for Elizabeth’s “Fine Eyes,” now is your chance.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada; through May 10. (562) 944-9801, lamiradatheatre.com
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