Review: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (at NYMF)

The New York Musical Theatre Festival is a musical only festival that appears on the New York theatre scene that takes in some of the strongest full productions of up and coming musicals from across the country and gives them the chance to show off their stuff in the heart of New York City.

Such known alumni include:

Every year presents a new crop of productions trying to find their footing and every year there has been standouts. This past year is no exception.

For the past several years there has been an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice going through the theatre circles, with a demo session in JASNA Chicago one year, and a one night full production performance in Rochester, New York a few years back.

If one were to do a search for “Jane Austen”, “pride”, “prejudice”, and “musical” there would be a whole crop of productions and attempts that various composers, lyricists and writers have attempted throughout the years. So how would this be any different than the rest?

What the creators: Lindsey Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs have done differently was not just take the story of Pride & Prejudice and put it on stage, but they included the “character” of Jane Austen into the production. Confused yet? Originally Pride & Prejudice was known as “First Impressions”, when Jane Austen sent the manuscript around it was rejected time and again to the point that she shelved the script and began work on Sense & Sensibility.

Later after the success of S&S, with the world itching for another story it is believed that Jane Austen took the story of First Impression and rewrote it heavily into the story we now know as Pride & Prejudice. This musical production not only goes through the storyline we all know and love, but what sets this show apart for the theater goer is that we also see the “author” of P&P and follow her as she edits, reviews, and changes her original manuscript into a masterpiece.

Sometimes Jane Austen (masterfully played by Donna Lynne Champlin) would simply write the story with her character enacting what she wrote verbatim. Sometimes she would struggle with words and her characters would choose for her, and every now and then her characters would simply recite exactly what is on their minds and Jane Austen would just transcribe them word for word. For anyone out there that does fictional writing this should be relate-able on some level.

In the New York Musical Theatre Festival incarnation of the production, the transitions between scenes was absolutely fluid, with the cast aiding in the scene changes. The dance sequences not only added to the story but also moved the storylines along so it isn’t just fluff. The chorus / ensemble numbers were spot on, and the individual performances exceeding expectations on a number of levels.

To this theatre goer, the male performances clearly outshined the female performances (aside from Donna’s interpretation of Jane Austen). Darren Bluestone is absolutely adorable and lovable as the smitten Charles Bingley, while his best friend Fitzwilliam Darcy is every girl’s dream realized by Doug Carpenter. What Doug brings to Darcy is a sense of vulnerability to a character driven by prejudice and pride only for his defenses to be broken down by a slit of a girl, his story arc isn’t just believable but profound as well.

Matthew Schneider is an absolute riot as Mr Collins, and seems to wear the robe of comedic relief for the production. His mannerisms, laugh, and characterization were not just spot on, but took everything to a whole new plateau that I haven’t seen in other productions of Pride & Prejudice.

Jane Bennet, as portrayed by Margaret Loesser Robinson, is believable and heartbreaking countered to perfection by Patricia Noonan’s Elizabeth Bennet. When these two actresses act and interact you could see the chemistry and connection that sisters ought to have.

With some actors/actresses playing dual roles perhaps one of the most surprising is the decision to have Marguerite Willbanks play not only the shallow matriarch Mrs Bennet, but also the insanely imposing Lady Catherine de Bourgh. At first glance I did not realize that both character were being played by the same actress, it wasn’t until I started reading the bios that I was pleasantly surprised. The strength of this actress is to play both characters in such a way that audience members would simply forget that it is the same actress and that is a pleasure to watch.

If there is something that needs tweaking it would undoubtedly be the length of the first act, which honestly cannot be helped because of just how much backstory and set up is needed to get the ball rolling. Quite honestly I did not notice how much time had passed until intermission and in retrospect I do not believe there is much else that the creators could cut to shorten the time in Act One.

Unfortunately the production’s run via the New York Musical Theatre Festival has come to an end, but I highly recommend keeping an eye (or an ear) out for this gem of a production. I’ve been following this for several years now and after seeing the show at NYMF, I am firmly keeping one ear to the ground in hopes of seeing an incarnation pop up soon… like on Broadway.

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