Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a good story. A darn good story. That’s why it’s still read, still told, two centuries after its first publication. Sadly, the best I can say after seeing the new musical adaptation at Theater for the New City is that Pride and Prejudice is still a darn good story.
Laden with trite lyrics, littered with melodic clichés, and played poorly by a small out-of-tune orchestra, the score trivializes rather than distilling or heightening the drama. Austen’s proto-feminist surgical analysis of the sad choices facing upper-middle-class young ladies without substantial dowries in George III’s England peeks through in spite of, not because of, generic-sounding songs about what a lovely day it is for a picnic.
The large, game cast puts as much heart and soul into their work as the amateurish material will allow. The company includes some superb voices, especially those of the male leads. And it allows hints of fine acting skills to surface from the likes of Amanda Yachechak in the lead role of Elizabeth, the deepest, wittiest, and most independent-minded of the five Bennet sisters, and Rebecca Knowles as Lydia, the youngest. The male leads mostly do well too.
Not all the performances come off. Henrietta Steventon as Mrs. Bennet seems to feel the need to overdo the comic relief asked of her, and though she has a number of funny moments she is often too screechy for words. (And in a technical lapse, no one bothered to make her up to look older than the actresses playing her daughters.) There’s also not much to this production’s Mr. Bennet, and its reputedly “formidable” Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a bland lightweight. (Of course, that’s always the risk when presenting a story so familiar: bumping up against the audience’s pre-conceived character images from book or screen.)
In spite of the score’s lack of originality, the actors manage to do well with it at times on the strength of their voices and emotional commitment. Darcy’s (Jonathan Fox Powers) songs show the actor to be in very fine voice. Both Elizabeth’s Act I song to Darcy and the pompous Mr. Collins’ (James Parks) introductory number are decently done. Thom Brown III, whose work with the Queens Players I have admired in the past, may have the most impressive singing voice of all as Wickham. (The character is spelled incorrectly in the error-prone program, which also fails to credit the musicians).
Bottom line: The show is a dud. Awkward pacing, poorly timed light and sound cues and musical interludes, confused-looking choreography, and abruptly ended scenes lend an amateurish quality to the universe created for these professional actors. A small but pointedly annoying problem: I couldn’t decide whether a sound of birdsong meant to enhance the atmosphere of the garden scenes more resembled rude whispering from the audience or muted feedback from a technical problem with the sound system.
But more important: While I am perfectly happy to see a new musical with an old-fashioned sort of score, that score still needs to be well and creatively crafted and set in an artfully written book. None of that is the case here.
An enormous amount of work goes into a lengthy musical with a large cast, period costumes, choreography, and a live orchestra. But with all the effort and energy that have gone into this big, ambitious show, these commendable actors are let down by the material. Pride and Prejudice is still a darn good story, but this musical doesn’t do it very proud.
It runs through July 12 at Theater for the New City. For tickets visit Smarttix online or call 212-868-4444.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1503290565][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B002VWNICW][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00G6HO368][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0486297489][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1594743347]