Working it out

Jane Austen, high schoolers, hip-hop and more at annual New Works Festival

Though this year's TheatreWorks Silicon Valley New Works Festival is, as usual, diverse in style and topic, with no particular overarching theme tying the plays-in-progress together, festival director Giovanna Sardelli said there's a sense of "being true to yourself, following your heart" and a rock-and-roll spirit running through much of the 2018 lineup. Always a highlight of the summer arts calendar, the festival this year will include influences from rock and hip-hop music, new spins on classic stories and wholly original tales from a variety of voices.

"I enjoy writing about strong women. I feel a lot of the source material I've chosen has been about strong women and that really appeals to me," writer/composer Paul Gordon said in a recent interview. TheatreWorks regulars will no doubt recognize Gordon as the writer/composer responsible for musical adaptations of works of literature including "Emma," "Jane Eyre," "Sense and Sensibility," "Daddy Long Legs" and "Being Earnest" and who has a history with the company.

"TheatreWorks is really fantastic at nurturing writers, and ever since I first came up with 'Emma,' I've thoroughly enjoyed the process of the New Works Festival," he said. "In between performances you have an opportunity to actually work on the piece after you've just heard it played in front of an audience. There's nothing more valuable than that."

This year, Gordon is presenting a musical adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice," perhaps Jane Austen's most beloved novel, to Palo Alto audiences. The 19th-century story of the spouse-seeking Bennet sisters and the romance between protagonist Elizabeth Bennet and the haughty and uptight Mr. Darcy is "sort of a silly story in many ways, about some foolish people," Gordon said, adding that he was originally more drawn to Austen's other works. But, it's also "this incredible reflection of society and how we see ourselves. A profound story even though in many ways it's very frivolous," he said. "That's the genius of Jane Austen. She can amuse us, educate us and really make us think about ourselves in a way that's still relevant with modern audiences."

His approach to setting Austen to music has varied from show to show. While "Emma's" score is light and airy and "Sense and Sensibility" is more serious and orchestral, "Pride and Prejudice," to his surprise, turned out to be more rock-and-pop flavored, particularly in regards to leading man Mr. Darcy, whose character arc Gordon finds the most compelling.

"He has that dark side to him. He's a very complicated character. Darcy has to overcome his own sense of self, this idea of who is is," he said. "This amazing woman that he comes across shatters his identity and makes him truly vulnerable for the first time in his life."

Counting the Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Elvis Costello among his songwriting heroes, along with fellow Broadway composer/pop writer David Yazbek, film-score composer John Williams and theater legend Stephen Sondheim, incorporating a variety of styles and genres comes naturally to Gordon.

While the New Works Festival reading of "Pride and Prejudice" will involve only a piano instead of the bass, drums and electric guitars a full production would include, "I do think people will be surprised at some of the edge," Gordon said. "Honestly, I don't know if any of it works. That's the great thing about the festival: The audience will tell me," he laughed.

Sardelli said she was excited to add "Something to Say: New Plays by Women," a sextet of 10-minute plays offering the fresh perspectives of six playwrights from around the country, to the lineup.

"I always want to know what every writer has to say," she said, "But I'm really curious about women; What are you thinking right now?"

Sardelli is herself directing Laurel Ollstein's "They Promised Her the Moon," the true story of a female pilot who strove to break the glass ceiling and join the space race as a U.S. astronaut.

Festival veterans The Kilbanes will perform their brand of rock-based storytelling as the late-night special event, while this year's Next Generation Event (a special slot given to an emerging artist/work from the community) will be a performance of "Venture," the Silicon Valley-set original musical by Palo Alto High School teacher Michael Najar that debuted at Paly (and was profiled in the Weekly) this spring. According to Paly Theater Program Director Kathleen Woods, the script has been tightened up in places and a new song has been added. "Venture"'s New Works performance will be made up of selected material from the full-length show and will include both high school cast members from the original production and some adult actors.

"Born in East Berlin" by Rogelio Martinez, examines a 1988 Bruce Springsteen concert in East Berlin through the story of Anne, an American music producer caught up in Cold War politics.

"She's used to moving through the world with all our American privileges, so sure she would never succumb to an authoritarian regime," Sardelli said. "It's actually a really fascinating look at learning the world works differently on one side of the wall than the other."

Another musical, "Once Upon a Rhyme," by Ronvé O' Daniel, tells the story of a dancer whose romance with the girlfriend of a gangsta rapper interferes with his dreams of a hip-hop career. The show won the "Best of Fest" award at the New York Musical Festival and Sardelli said she's sure it's bound for future success.

"It has so much energy; it's really exciting," she said. "It's about identity, about talents, about how we move through the world." The piece, which, when fully staged, would be dance-intensive, involves rap and gospel music, and Sardelli said it's been a while since TheatreWorks ventured into the world of hip-hop.

The New Works Festival, she said, tends to attract both audience regulars and newcomers drawn to the chance to see shows in their incubation phase.

"We get a different mix of people and we're so blessed in that we also have a subscriber base that is excited by New Works, so there's a lot of crossover," she said. "It's good to see what the response is. They're all exciting to me but I'm always surprised by the ones that resonate."

What: New Works Festival 2018

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

When: Aug. 10-19.; see online for festival schedule.

Cost: Festival pass $49-$65; individual shows $20.

Info: Go to TheatreWorks.

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