When is a work of art just the right size? That is a question that comes to mind when watching the remarkable production of Jane Eyre, the musical with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and book, with additional lyrics, by John Caird.
This production is billed as a “world premiere revised version” since it has taken the sizable show that opened on Broadway in 2000 and cut the cast and orchestra rather significantly. What we have now are ten performers, seven of whom portray multiple characters. The cast is a mix of Broadway and local Cleveland actors, and they acquit themselves splendidly in this tale of the young woman from the eponymous Charlotte Bronte novel.
The goal of the producers is to craft a show that is a manageable size, a chamber version that could more easily be attempted by small to medium-sized theater companies. That goal would appear to have been attained, since the play is a fast-moving affair thanks to the lean and inventive direction by Miles Sternfeld.
Still, the original novel presents challenges aplenty since it covers many years but not a lot of visible action. Poor Jane makes her way from one miserable situation to another while she burns, internally, for freedom from the stultifying confines of being female in 19th century England. Since most of Bronte’s most glorious work happens inside Jane’s head, it doesn’t afford opportunities for brash and bold staging.
Sternfeld and the creators amp up the wattage by having the ensemble of actors share the narration which came originally from Jane herself. And thanks to the near-constant stylized movement fashioned by choreographer Martin Cespedes, there is a sense of things happening all the time when in reality it’s pretty static.
The play is blessed with two immensely strong performers in the leads. In the title role, Andrea Goss cranks a powerful voice from her small frame, and while she isn’t as homely as Jane Eyre was said to be, one feels her vulnerability as she tries to forge a life for herself against all odds. As the wealthy Edward Rochester, Matt Bogart invests each of his songs with rich nuance that sometimes isn’t present in the words and notes.
About the music: While the show isn’t sung-through, it is often in recitative mode, and this can become a bit repetitive at times as it follows the dips and swells of a composition that, while beautiful, eventually becomes overly familiar. This situation improves in Act Two when some more distinctive songs—a humorous turn in “The Gypsy” and the equally diverting “Slip of a Girl”—drop in to break the pace.
The supporting cast does yeoman work with multiple roles as Alison England, Laura Perrotta and Gregory Violand change characters with swift assuredness. The outstandingly talented group also includes Fabio Polanco, Cody Gerszewski, Lauryn Hobbs, Emma McLelland, and Genny Lis Padilla.
What works particularly well in this production is the highly coordinated ensemble movement that often end in a variety of tableaux with well-honed body lines or gestures that convey the mood of the moment. It is fascinating to watch.
What works less well is the music when it settles into its comfortable groove and doesn’t seek out surprising new avenues to pursue. This is particularly noticeable in the three duets featuring Jane and Rochester that, while sung skillfully and with passion, never rise musically to the distinctive level one might desire. When you find yourself paying more attention to the vocal craftsmanship rather than the soaring emotion, there’s a problem.
The missing element, it seems, is some way to dramatize Jane’s inner conflict and burning desire for personal liberty while staying true to the period. Once that is in place, the mundane geography of Jane’s journey can become a battlefield (#MeTooJane), and the play will truly take flight.
“Jane Eyre” is a romance tucked inside a not-so-quiet feminist screed, down to the well-known crazy woman in the attic. Back then, the words had to be softer and the attacks more oblique back when Bronte wrote them. But this production shows a clear path to making Jane Eyre, the new revised musical version, an outstanding theatrical experience for years to come.
Through September 9, produced by the Cleveland Musical Theatre in association with Cuyahoga Community College East, Simon Rose Mandel Theatre, 4250 Richmond Road, Highland Hills, 216-584-6808, Clevelandmusicaltheatre.org.