Well, you can’t win all the time…
Lamb’s Players Theatre is coming off a much-extended run of an intimate recent musical called Once. It featured an ensemble cast that worked very well together and put across a slight but charming tale with aplomb. It’s following up with an intimate recent musical based on Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion. Again, it’s an ensemble piece, but this time the ensemble works less well together. And, the tale is more substantial but less charming than Once.
Persuasion features three families, each depicting a stratum of society. The Elliots are titled and upper crust. The Musgroves are what is known as “landed gentry,” a family with money but without titles. The Harvilles are poor but happy. They live in a seaside cottage, so they’re not destitute. The cast portrays members of each family, shifting back and forth via changes in Jeanne Reith’s cornucopia of costumes.
Two characters remain constant and have interactions with each of the families. Anne Elliot (Allison Spratt Pearce), the second daughter of Sir Walter (John Rosen), and Captain Wentworth (David S. Humphrey), who proposes to Anne as he is about to go off to war. She accepts, only to renege after her aunt (Linda Libby, through October 21, when Kerry Meads steps in) pressures her to wait for a more advantageous (read: titled) match. But, Wentworth takes a route often followed by military officers: he makes a good deal of money while serving and returns both a hero and a rich man.
Of course, Wentworth’s return eight years after he proposed to Anne sets off a competition for who can attract this very eligible bachelor. Anne Elliot has not attracted another proposal (it’s initially implied, and later more so, that her support for women’s rights in an era where aristocratic women were not to be seen in public unless accompanied by a man had something to do with it). She traveled to the Musgraves after the Elliots suffered misfortune, where she is treated comparably to Cinderella after she rejected the advances of Charles Musgrave (Omri Schein).
She also traveled to the Harvilles, where she encountered Captain Benwick (Jordan Miller), a friend of both Captain Harville (Mr. Rosen) and Captain Wentworth. Benwick and Harville were not as well off as Wentworth, and Harville was already married (Ms. Libby). Benwick had been engaged to marry Captain Harville’s sister, Fanny, but she died while he was serving. He becomes interested in Anne but is also interested in the Musgrave daughters (Abigail Allwein and Lauren King Thompson). William Elliot (Mr. Miller) also comes on the scene later. He is a distant cousin of Sir Walter, Anne’s father. He is also the presumptive heir to the Elliot’s titles, if nothing else.
So, the three stories intermingle, with Anne being the common tie among them. One needs a strong Anne for Persuasion to succeed. Fortunately, the production has one in Ms. Pearce, whose creamy soprano is perfectly matched to what turns out to be the stylistic vagaries of Chris Jeffries’ score.
Unfortunately, much else doesn’t succeed. Mr. Humphrey possesses a strong, heroic, tenor, but his blend with Ms. Pearce leaves something to be desired. Other singers seem to have been encouraged to perform as their characters might, which results in screechiness and nasality that are unbecoming to ladies and gentlemen of any class. There was a fair amount of pitchiness on opening night, generally emanating from lack of adequate vocal support. And, it was no help that Music Director Patrick Marion’s chamber ensemble at the top Mike Buckley’s scenic design didn’t register as well balanced in Patrick Duffy’s sound design. Holding over the Once band for this show might have helped.
But, what made me shake my head most was the general quality of playing in Producing Artistic Director Robert Smyth’s production. While saying in a pre-curtain speech that he admired how Ms. Austen saw her society as it was, his cast seemed to have been encouraged to play the author’s “biting wit” in big gestures and exaggerated line readings. This encouragement is poison in the hands of an actor like Mr. Schein, who has a bag of tricks that can be charming in moderation, but which can quickly become tiresome if overstated (though, Mr. Schein, abetted by Abigail Allwein, does pull off the one substantive coup, late in the show, which gets a huge laugh and which I will not spoil). The place where the cast relaxes and does its best ensemble work is when the focus is on the Harville family (and, Ms. Libby particularly shines in these scenes).
Musical adaptations of Jane Austen novels are a dime a dozen in regional theatre right now. It does not seem a treat to follow the down-to-earth quirkiness of Once with the less-than-stellar, off-kilter, musically-odd adaptation of Persuasion. Lamb’s can, and many times does, create better theatre than this.