Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto, Opening/Press Night, Dec. 7
I find it unfathomable to imagine turning up to a premiere of yet another rendition of Jane Austen’s 200-year-old classic (no matter how impressively musical) and not comparing it to the “Pride and Prejudice”: the one and only, the BBC masterpiece with Colin Firth. To adapt this rich source material is a hard task — from the razor-sharp witticism in the powerhouse that is Elizabeth Bennett to the layered transformation of a character like Darcy, there’s a lot to be channeled here. Speaking of powerful characters, any adaptation must also measure up to Cary Mulligan’s Kitty Bennet, Rosalind Pike’s Jane Bennett and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth in the 2005 film by Joe Wright.
Austen’s take on the chick flick formula: girl meets boy. Boy appears to be less than respectable doing less than optimal things. A cruel misunderstanding ensues. Boy then swiftly redeems himself, and the couple flourishes. As you can tell, this formula has been milked dry across multiple formats and stories. Thankfully, this TheatreWorks production, directed by Richard Kelley and featuring music and lyrics by Paul Gordon delivers enough to stop us from viewing it as just another musical. Tough predecessors aside, there is a lot of artistic ground to cover here. Developing complex social commentary, layered and evolving characters and sprawling but very foreign English estates like Pemberley in two hours requires mastery of one’s art.
And Paul Gordon is no stranger to British classics. TheatreWorks produced his west coast premiere of “Jane Eyre” in 2003. The Broadway run of this production bagged five Tony Award nominations. Following this, Gordon produced “Emma” (2006). While Paul’s traditional love for classic literature continues with this latest work, “Pride and Prejudice” is marked by a distinctly contemporary musical texture. Some tracks were so hummable and “fresh,” I predict this show may be a hit even for the young adults. I’m not saying they should trade in their Eillish and Mendes tickets just yet but would encourage them to give this a go. It’s not chance that this production was chosen to mark TheatreWorks’ 70th World Premiere.
This story of the Bennets is set in 1810, with five headstrong young women, anxious parents and high-stakes circumstances. In the gender discriminatory Regency era, if the male head of the family died, his estate would be passed on to his nearest surviving male relation. This was the situation our Bennet sisters found themselves in where they were required to marry to avoid being at the mercy of distant cousin, a thoroughly repulsive Mr. Collins (played to perfection by Brian Herndon). It would make for a pretty serious subject matter were it not for the delightful levity provided by the entertaining Bennet family. Elizabeth rightfully declares at the very beginning, “They’re mad! The lot of them! But not my father. And not Jane.”
Soon enough, Elizabeth (Mary Mattison) and her older sister Jane meet a bumbling handsome Mr. Bingley (Travis Leland) and the dark, mysterious and stately Mr. Darcy (Justin Mortelliti). Darcy is brilliantly portrayed by the talented Mortelliti and is shown to be a loner simply because his place in society makes for a solitary existence. This pain comes across in his beautiful reflection about the solitude of a “man of stature” (hint: that’s him): “The world we live in is the world they long for … So I keep my distance.”
Through a sprawling two hours, the story covers the clearing of misunderstandings, uncloaking of villains, softening of hearts and unleashing of love. At times the bubbly contemporary music gets a bit much on the pop charts side but mostly remained fun. Similarly, the levels of soppy cheese varied — from the insightful (painful) “he’s just a man of my acquaintance” and the disappointed in love Jane Bennet to the sugary redundant “I’m amazed by how much I love you, how much I care,” crooned by Darcy.
Apart from the incandescent Mattison, Melissa Wolfklain (Mary Bennet) easily scooped up the most laughs of the night (and was my personal favorite) by her totally unnecessary but hilariously deadpan intros to the set. Other notable performances were from Taylor Crousore playing the slimy Mr. Wickham, Lucinda Hitchcock Cone (the OTT elegant Lady Catherine De Bourgh) and Heather Orth (Mrs. Bennet riddled with daughter marriage anxieties and a general 24/7 shredded-nerves-type disposition). Finally, the winning performance of the night was the sheer chemistry between the leads — a prerequisite for this story — effortlessly delivered by Mattison and Mortelliti.
All in all, this was a cheerful and wholesome holiday show. I haven’t found my Darcy, but it’s tremendously satisfying to appreciate that we no longer live in a world where the worst fate is “dying an old maiden.”
The show runs until Jan. 4.
The headline of this article has been corrected to clarify that it is a review of the show, not a preview. The Daily regrets this error.
Contact Anupriya Dwivedi at adwivedi ‘at’ stanford.edu.