Playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan judged a new novel titled “Pride and Prejudice” as “one of the cleverest things” he’d ever read, and urged a friend to “buy it immediately.”
That surely would have pleased author Jane Austen, who much admired Sheridan’s touted plays. And what would she make of the lavish popularity her works command today, two centuries later? The dozens of plays, films and novels (including zombie treatments, parodies and musicals) inspired by “Pride and Prejudice,” her best-known book?
It would be fascinating, for instance, to get her reaction to “Austen’s Pride,” the newish musical at 5th Avenue Theatre. The show quotes a generous portion of her sparkling dialogue verbatim, and faithfully depicts “Pride and Prejudice’s” slow-simmering romance between witty, discerning Elizabeth Bennet, and the rich, handsome and snooty Fitzwilliam Darcy. It captures the lilt of Austen’s language, and her cunning social observations.
But Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs (who co-wrote and co-composed the musical), add another layer to the tale. Their seriocomic, affectionate but bloated show revolves (literally) around a character representing Austen herself. And as her fictional offspring dance, sing and emote around her, it imagines Austen penning “Pride and Prejudice” as … well, as a kind of therapeutic self-help project to work out her own relationship issues.
This device is both inventive and simplistic, clever and cumbersome. More problematically, Austen’s plight is sentimentalized by a score leaning heavily on swelling, sound-alike ballads of introspection — overkill, despite the considerable vocal power of the cast.
The story-within-a-story here hinges on Austen (played with feisty endurance and in impressive voice by Laura Michelle Kelly) agonizing over her “spinsterhood,” and musing what might have been with a fellow she flirted with as a teenager.
There actually was such a gentleman (Thomas LeFroy), mentioned favorably in a few of Austen’s letters — though he wed someone else. He appears briefly here, with the same strapping, dishy actor (Steven Good) doubling as LeFroy and Mr. Darcy, as if one was based on the other.
Was he? Who knows? There are wide gaps in Austen’s slender biography (most of her letters do not survive) that other fictions have also filled with amorous speculation — most notably, the film “Becoming Jane,” with Anne Hathaway as Austen.
All is fair in love and artistic license. And many other aspects of Austen’s life veer from that of Elizabeth Bennet (played by a glowing Olivia Hernandez). Lizzie has a flibbertigibbet, marriage-obsessed mother (the adeptly wacky Michele Ragusa, doubling as Darcy’s gorgon aunt Catherine de Bourgh); a droll, long-suffering father (TV and stage veteran Clifton Davis); and several naive, squabbling younger sisters — as well as a wiser bestie sibling, Jane (Manna Nichols).
Eric Ankrim has a very silly, very funny turn as Lizzie’s obnoxious cousin and would-be suitor, Mr. Collins. And dashing John Donovan Wilson fulfills the caddish charm of the villainous George Wickham.
“Austen’s Pride” begins with romantic rejection, then jumps years to find the novelist, in her 30s and at her older sister Cassandra’s urging, revamping an early manuscript (“First Impressions”) into the masterful “Pride and Prejudice.” In the process Austen ponders a rather superfluous question: Is she a true romantic? Or a skeptic who has settled for singlehood (“When he broke my heart I made a choice not to love at all”). As if a well-bred female with no dowry was a hot marital prospect in Austen’s day …
The central conceit in Igor Goldin’s staging, on Josh Zangen’s half-shell mobile set, places Austen onstage throughout, notebook and pen in hand, observing and interacting with characters as she creates and revises them. This furnishes amusing bits as Lizzie, Darcy and others look to (and lobby) her for their next moves. But at other times, Austen just seems in the way.
More than 20 numbers are stuffed into two-and-a-half hours. Most distinctive: the up-tempo tunes with story thrust, like the snappy “I Can’t Resist a Redcoat,” with a regiment of hunky soldiers marching into town; and “The Netherfield Ball,” waltzing us into an eventful fete. The most affecting ballad is the most subtle: “Fine Eyes,” sensitively performed by Good.
The production boasts a large cast, but looks low-budget in other respects. While the lighting scheme (by Jason Lyons) employs attractive projections to indicate sense of place, the ladies’ attire by Melanie Taylor Burgess seems drab compared to the Regency-era fashion displays in other Austen spin offs.
That can be remedied. And “Austen’s Pride” will likely satisfy some “Pride and Prejudice” fans and newcomers to the novel. But it needs cutting (and some rethinking) to rank high among the novel’s many, many homages.
“Austen’s Pride” by Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs. Through Oct. 27 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; tickets start at $29; 206-625-1900, 5thavenue.org
Correction: This review has been updated with the correct names of the actors playing Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Bennet.