Book, Music and Lyrics: Paul Gordon
Director: Robert Kelley
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is infinitely adaptable; there have been many television reworkings including a forthcoming version by playwright Nina Raine, several films and stage productions, now there is even a musical. On 11th April the Virtual Opening Night of Paul Gordon’s Pride & Prejudice: A New Musical was streamed on Facebook by WhatsonStage in association with Streaming Musicals. Filmed at TheartreWorks in California in January, this comedic and fast-moving new version marked one of the few UK premieres since lockdown began.
Running at a little over two hours excluding interval, around 1700 viewers tuned in to watch the free WhatsonStage Facebook live stream of this familiar story. The five Bennett sisters are sent into a flutter by the arrival of unmarried gentlemen Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy at Netherfield Park where soon the two eldest, Jane and Elizabeth, become swept up in their superior social circle. As the marriage game begins, the sisters find many hurdles in their path including cloying clerics, dastardly soldiers and condescending noblewomen. But when scandal erupts within the Bennett family, all hope seems lost.
For British viewers any adaptation of Pride and Prejudice must overcome the perfection of the 1995 BBC series; it is the bar against which all other attempts are judged and often found wanting. But if you can put it from your mind, there is much to like in this American interpretation and although it increasingly jettisons Austen’s dialogue and finely tuned wit, it retains the spirit and shape of the original story which, on its own terms, creates an enjoyable couple of hours of theatre.
The character of Elizabeth (Mary Mattison) is its trump card, pushing her independence and ferocious determination even beyond Austen’s original character. This protagonist says exactly what she thinks to anyone unlucky enough to cross her path, initially rejecting the necessity of marriage and children and transgressing the rules of polite society or respect for hierarchy that to some extent govern Austen’s original world. And while purists will insist that speaking her mind so openly would not have been possible, this is a Lizzie Bennett cross-bred in the twenty-first century whose introductory song Headstrong tells the audience all they need to know.
Gordon has expanded the novel’s point of view to see the perspective of characters other than Elizabeth using haphazard narration, straight-forward dramatic scenes and commentary on location changes and character introductions made through asides to the audience. It only partially works and in revealing so much of Mr Darcy’s feelings after his first meeting with Elizabeth, the effect of his haughty behaviour and the surprise of his deeply felt passion for her, stumblingly revealed at the first proposal, is undermined.
The songs are largely forgettable, and, as the show progresses, they start to sound too alike, but Lady Catherine de Bourgh has a fantastic number towards the end of Act One as she demands reverence in Her Ladyship’s Praise while the subplot with Jane (Sharon Rietkerk) and Mr Bingley (Travis Leland) amusingly presented as a couple who are too shy to reveal their feelings results in the sweet Man of My Acquaintance that is filled with sorrowful resignation. Later as the tone becomes more sentimental, the lyrics are a little sticker as Mr Darcy rhymes “reassess” and “prejudice” while damming Elizabeth’s “lustre it outshines my ego” which makes her sound like a horse.
The secondary characters are rather anaemic with little to distinguish between the three remaining Bennett sisters (Chanel Tilghman, Tara Kostmayer and Melissa WolfKlain), and despite some good scenes the powerful disdain of Lucinda Hitchcock Cone’s Lady Catherine, the creepy Mr Collins (Brian Herndon) and the bad boy appeal of Taylor Crousore’s Mr Wickham are too easily swept away. Crousore would have been better cast as Mr Darcy, based on his arrogance as Wickham and chemistry with Mattison which would have served the show much better than Justin Mortelliti’s uncomfortable version of the novel’s hero.
It’s not quite Austen as we know it, the English accents are wobbly and they have taken some liberties with the language, but Taylor and his cast clearly have an affection for this story and its writer that shines through the production. This collaboration between Streaming Musicals and WhatsonStage only made Pride & Prejudice: A New Musical available free for a single afternoon but don’t be surprised if it makes it to a UK stage eventually.
Streaming here for £4.99