Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” is a Cinderella story with Gothic flourishes, but that alone doesn’t account for its lasting appeal.
The musical version now playing at Taproot Theatre breathlessly encapsulates the major incidents in Brontë’s remarkable 1847 novel, which interweaves incisive observations on child abuse, class, morality and women’s status in 19th-century society into a swoon-worthy love story between a “plain Jane” and her seductively mysterious employer — and a horror story about a madwoman in an attic.
Something essential is missing in Taproot’s intimate production of the show, which had its Broadway debut in 2000 and had a Seattle Musical Theatre airing in 2009. The piece is gracefully arrayed by director Karen Lund on the company’s modest-sized mainstage.
It is in the main attractively costumed (by Sarah Burch Gordon), and features some appealing voices. A chamber trio perched in a loft area ably executes the neoclassical score composed by Paul Gordon.
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But this “Jane Eyre” stokes only a dull spark between the orphaned young governess Jane, played by Jessica Spencer, and her enigmatic master at the remote Yorkshire estate of Thornfield Hall, Edward Rochester (Art Anderson).
The lack of chemistry can be partly blamed on the mismatched portrayals of these two central and paradigmatic characters. Another culprit: John Caird’s book for the musical doesn’t find enough ways to animate Jane’s interior life and give her a more active role in the tale. (It also shortchanges that pathetic castoff in the attic.)
Spencer’s Jane is mostly watchful and worried, drably attired and tends to look glum. At times, the character’s exceptional intelligence and sensitivity shine through the prim, tightly bound form of a dutiful servant.
But where is the full blossoming of her long-suppressed selfhood, as Jane’s rapport with Rochester evolves into a mutual passion? And when they finally do unite, it’s not the sexy soul-connection it should be.
Unlike most cinematic Rochesters (from Orson Welles to Michael Fassbender), Anderson isn’t so much the Byronic brooder, with hidden depths of sensitivity and affection to discover beneath a brutish surface.
He’s more playful and flirtatious, more like the dashing male lead of a comic operetta wooing a wallflower. It’s off-course, but Anderson is an excellent singer of some of the best numbers in Gordon’s score, which circles and recircles in the Andrew Lloyd Webber mode.
Particularly strong are his renditions of the sardonic “As Good as You,” and his falsetto comic turn in fortune teller’s drag, “The Gypsy.”
Much of the story is conveyed in the choral narrative numbers, well sung by members of the ensemble. Randy Scholz comes through as a minister who shelters and proposes to Jane, Mark Tyler Miller is an aptly brutal schoolmaster, and April Poland has a delightful bel canto turn as trilling Blanche Ingram, who has set her sights on marrying Rochester. Blanche is a snob and a gold-digging twit. But she’s such a live wire that, in this rendition of “Jane Eyre,” you almost root for her.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org