BWW Review: AUSTEN'S PRIDE at the 5th Avenue Manages a Triple Threat
Most people are familiar with Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice". Whether it's from the book, the mini-series, the movies (even the zombie one), or just from general pop culture, most people know the story. So, turning this into a musical is a bit risky especially with so many Austen-philes out there. But writers Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs, have pulled it off (to an extent) with their new musical "Austen's Pride", currently at the 5th Avenue Theatre, and have even tripled the daunting task by making the melodies soar while fitting in the period, combining it with a story of Austen herself, and still retaining the charm and heart of "Pride and Prejudice" along the way.
The show goes beyond just the story of headstrong Elizabeth Bennet (Olivia Hernandez) as she navigates the Regency Era of England, trying to retain her independence but still win the heart of Mr. Darcy (Steven Good). That story is all still there but we also get a look into author Jane Austen herself (Laura Michelle Kelly) as we see her own heartbreaking journey which led her to the creation of one of the world's most enduring and romantic novels.
Attempting to tell this story that makes so many get all misty and swoon (myself included) is one thing but to add in the trope of the creator interacting with her creation and not interfere with the story yet still make it fun is quite something else and Baker and Jacobs do it beautifully. The dialog between Austen and her characters is delightful as she and they constantly break through to each other to discuss and chastise about the direction of the story. And by doing so they not only delve into the thoughts and intent of the characters but into Austen as she deals with her own past which led her to this story, and how she worked through it to reclaim her romantic self.
The songs are lovely, especially when sung by the powerhouse performers in this production. They don't necessarily move the story along (usually one of my new musical pet peeves) but they do beautifully reveal the inner truths of the characters advancing the emotional journey. They still need some work. There's not one that I went away humming or really remember that much but they are appealing nonetheless. There are a few that truly shine such as Austen and Elizabeth's "Had I Been in Love" and Darcy's "Fine Eyes" and really show a turning point in the show but they still didn't completely hook me in. It was still the original story and the interaction with Austen that sold the show more than the music.
The cast feels plucked right out of the pages of the book and could not be more talented. Good is the perfect Mr. Darcy with his imposing good looks, but it's his emotional intent that he brings to the character that sells it. And his chemistry with the amazing Hernandez, whose voice shattered my soul, fills the theater. And her take on this powerful woman is fabulous. And speaking of soul piercing vocals, Kelly is right up there in that regard as she keeps from becoming simply a narrator but a complex character with her own emotional arc.
But if you think that's all you are sorely mistaken. The entire ensemble is from the theater Gods, each one transforming into their characters, sometimes into multiple characters, and making the evening sparkle. They're all spectacular but I must mention a few stand outs. First and foremost, I must talk about the brilliance that is Michele Ragusa in her roles as the desperate Mrs. Bennet as well as the disapproving Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Not only does she disappear into the roles so much that I had to look in the program to convince myself they were both played by Ragusa but her motherly breakdown song "My Poor Nerves" brought down the house. And speaking of fantastic parents, Clifton Davis as the beleaguered Mr. Bennet is a gem. Then there are a couple of local favorites. Sarah Rose Davis may not have too much to say or sing as the snooty Caroline Bingley, but what she does convey is divalicious and hysterical right down to her curt head tilt at the end of each letter to Jane. And I don't think I've ever seen a more deliciously socially awkward and foppish Mr. Collins than from Eric Ankrim. If for nothing else, keep your eyes on him during the dance at the Netherfield Ball. Comedy gold!
Especially for an Austen fan, the show is an absolute winner. Even with my musical qualms, I was still swept up in the romance and soaring voices, and the inclusion of the Austen story arc, only engaged me more. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give the 5th Avenue Theatre's production of "Austen's Pride" a "my romance cup runneth over" YAY+. Just a touch of work on making those songs catch more and they could have a big romantic Broadway hit on their hands.
"Austen's Pride" performs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through October 27th. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue Theatre box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.