Writer/composer Paul Gordon has a penchant for creating musical adaptations of classic works of literature ("Emma," Jane Eyre," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Daddy Long Legs," to name a few). He also has a productive history with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, so it only makes sense that his new musical version of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" is making its world premiere with the Tony-winning local company, having been a part of its New Works Festival back in 2018. It's the 70th world premiere in the venerable company's history.
Let me admit here (avert your eyes, any of my former English teachers) that I have never yet read Austen' "Pride and Prejudice." However, so beloved is the 1813 British novel of manners that I felt going into the play that I'd absorbed enough through pop-culture osmosis to feel at least a little familiar with the basics of the plot. Now having seen it, I'd say TheatreWorks' new musical, deftly directed by Robert Kelley, should prove pleasing to both fervent fans of the novel and newcomers alike.
The story concerns "headstrong" Lizzie Bennet (Mary Mattison), the second daughter of an upper-class country family. Her siblings include saintly, shy eldest sister Jane (Sharon Rietkerk), droll Mary (Melissa WolfKlain), and vapid little sisters Kitty (Chanel Tilghman) and Lydia (Tara Kostmayer). Their parents are the overbearing Mrs. Bennet (Heather Orth) and Mr. Bennet (Christopher Vettel), who, as a member of the landed gentry, does not have to work but rather earns an income from his estate. However, because the estate is entailed, it may not be inherited by his daughters but rather pass to the closest male relative, leaving the ladies rather in the lurch. Furthermore, Mrs. Bennet comes from meager(ish) middle-class ties, meaning the family is somewhat lacking in high-level social connections (still, to modern American eyes, they seem quite fancy).
Because of their awkward situation, Mrs. Bennet is desperate to make successful marriage matches for her daughters as soon as possible. Though she's portrayed as a comic, kooky character, her obsession does make sense when one realizes how little financial power women have in this world.
Mrs. Bennet sees wealthy, mild-mannered new neighbor Mr. Bingley (Travis Leland) as the perfect match for Jane. Accompanying him is his catty sister Caroline (Monique Hafen Adams) and his somewhat grumpy best friend, Mr. Darcy (Justin Mortelliti), who's even more rich and eligible than Bingley, if only his manners were more pleasant.
When outspoken Lizzie meets high-and-mighty Darcy, sparks fly, and it's their tumultuous courtship that's at the heart of the show.
Gordon's book and songs do a good job of honoring Austen's humor, fizzy way with words and keen social insights. In a 2018 interview, Gordon told me that he enjoys writing from source material about "strong women" and that shines through with his Lizzie. As embodied by Mattison, she's a refreshingly modern heroine who stands up for herself and her imperfect, maddening but loving family, and is unwilling to settle for less than she deserves in life. Gordon also said he finds Darcy's character arc to be the most compelling, as he must allow himself to be vulnerable for perhaps the first time. That, too, shines through, as Darcy's songs were my favorite of the bunch, with driving pop-rock flavors and rhythms and a fantastic performance by Mortelliti, with a voice reminiscent of a 1960s British pop star. The two leads boast good chemistry and comic timing.
Other cast standouts include Rietkerk as Jane, with a voice that's all sweetness; Brian Herndon as the hilariously odious Mr. Collins, the clergyman who'll inherit the Bennets' estate; Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as his snobby patron Lady Catherine De Bourgh; Leland, whose tongue-tied, gentle Bingley is able to express his passionate inner thoughts thanks to Gordon's fine songwriting; and WolfKlain, whose underappreciated Mary introduces settings and scenes in a deadpan, eye-rolling style that on opening night drew audience laughter each and every time (as did Adams' very funny, Valley girl-ish delivery of Caroline's letters).
Joe Ragey's scenic design, full of greenery, candlelight and oil paintings, is beautiful, as are costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt, who puts a slightly modern twist on classic Regency period designs.
"Pride and Prejudice," Gordon said, "is sort of a silly story in many ways, about some foolish people," but also "this incredible reflection of society and how we see ourselves." Lizzie and Darcy prove to be a love story worth swooning for and their genteel, articulate world one in which audiences are more than happy to spend some time. Bigger Austen devotees than I will no doubt have their own informed thoughts, favorite moments and/or quibbles with this musical adaptation. I say, as a warm-hearted, witty production it stands on its own merits. A premiere to be proud of, surely.
What: "Pride and Prejudice."
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Through Jan. 4.