While Taproot Theatre’s world-premiere musical captures the wit of Jane Austen’s novel, the romantic chemistry falls a bit flat, writes critic Dusty Somers.
Adapting Jane Austen is a double-edged sword.
Certainly, there’s a built-in audience ready and waiting. Austen has one of the most devoted followings in English-language literature (the Jane Austen Society of North America boasts 75 regional chapters).
On the other hand, Austen fans’ standards are not what one would call lenient. What happens if you can’t replicate that balance of swelling romance and airy wit? Film and television adaptations often tend to accentuate the former at the expense of the latter.
By Harold Taw and Chris Jeffries, based on the novel by Jane Austen. Through Aug. 26, Taproot Theatre, Seattle; $27-$47 (206-781-9707 or taproottheatre.org).
That’s not an issue in Harold Taw and Chris Jeffries’ musical adaptation of Austen’s final novel, “Persuasion,” now playing in a world-premiere production at Taproot Theatre. While Austen hasn’t been well-represented on the musical stage, “Persuasion” begs to be musicalized, thanks to its melancholy tinge and the longing felt by protagonist Anne Elliot. Repressed feelings make for great song material.
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“Persuasion” had a reading at the 5th Avenue Theatre’s 2015 Festival of New Musicals, and it comes to the Taproot stage as a fully formed, cohesive work. The score and book are tightly integrated into the storytelling, and Austen’s sense of humor is perfectly intact. A four-piece band, led by Michael Matlock, ably swells the emotion.
Cayman Ilika stars as Anne, an unmarried 27-year-old who gave up on her engagement to naval officer Captain Wentworth (Matthew Posner) nearly a decade ago after being persuaded he wasn’t good enough for her. When Wentworth reappears in her life after a successful military campaign, questions of propriety, duty and love resurface.
Ilika’s porcelain voice is one of the key assets of Taproot’s production, and her deliberate enunciation helps us understand her character immediately. This is a woman determined to do things the proper way, even to her own detriment.
What is proper, though? Conflicting voices have varying opinions, from the high-society snobbery of her shallow father and older sister Elizabeth (Nick DeSantis and Chelsea LeValley) to the busybody meddling of her godmother (Caitlin Frances).
Jeffries illustrates this maelstrom of viewpoints with musical numbers that unfold in fits and starts; characters’ verses intersect, but their melodies remain distinct amidst the whole. It’s a valuable storytelling strategy, if perhaps a touch overused.
Because Jeffries’ score continually advances the narrative, Taw’s book is able to proceed effectively through a story that traverses from location to location, with most of the actors playing multiple roles. There are many moving parts here, but none of them feel extraneous.
Taproot’s production, directed by Karen Lund, is populated with memorable character turns. DeSantis’ and LeValley’s preening upper-crust pomposity cries out to be punctured with a dose of reality. The same goes for Kate Jaeger as Anne’s self-absorbed younger sister Mary, whose sense of entitlement is equaled only by her hypochondria.
Randy Scholz radiates oblivious decency as two different romantic prospects for Anne, while Sophia Franzella continues her campaign to lock down every zany comic-relief role in town as Louisa Musgrove, Anne’s chief rival for Wentworth’s attentions. Ryan Childers plays a handful of background characters, but takes center stage in a swing-for-the-fences drag gag that seems distinctly un-Austen in its sensibility.
If songs are where the true emotions flourish in “Persuasion,” it might make sense that they are not felt as strongly outside of the music. In this production, however, the distinct lack of chemistry between Ilika and Posner in their scenes together — despite all the feeling they lend to their musical numbers — detracts from the whole. Sure, Austen’s pragmatic view of love in “Persuasion” makes room for a romance that isn’t nonstop fireworks, but here, the missing spark results in a sputter to the finish.
That’s a small but not insignificant drawback to a production that otherwise acts as a strong showcase for this promising new work.