REVIEW: Dear Spectator, See 'Jane Eyre The Musical'
By Shayla Brinkerhoff, Feb 27, 2020
When I first read the 19th-century novel Jane Eyre as a teen, I idolized the heroine’s granite integrity. Despite a childhood of neglect and abuse, Jane grows into a warm and generous woman. When offered her first and likely only opportunity for love and family, she declines in deference to her virtuous fortitude. In our contrasting 21st century, “steadfastness” is not a popular aspiration. Character development as a whole has been replaced by sheer ambition. Life is spent in the pursuit of having it all, not being it all.
I wondered, will a story that revolves around a supposedly “outdated” moral constitution hold up as a contemporary play? Will Jane’s scruples remain center stage in spite of the more sensational plot points? Can the show appeal to modern viewers without losing its soul? Dear reader, I am happy to report in the affirmative on all counts.
Jane Eyre begins as any gothic tale should, with an abundance of death and gloom. Ten-year-old Jane (Mae Coonradt) lives in misery with her heartless aunt (Karilynne Pearson as Mrs. Reed) and cruel cousin (Karson Bentley as John Reed), having been orphaned and then left further bereft when her kindly uncle died. Young Miss Coonradt admirably rises to the occasion of opening the show and introducing the lead. Having seen both Pearson and Bentley as similarly antagonizing characters in other productions last year, I believe they are developing some expertise in the matter.
The next scene introduces the moral backbone that will run the full length of the narrative. Jane is enrolled by her aunt in the most inhospitable boarding school that can be found. As yet, our heroine is only as noble as we might expect: hurt and friendless, she lashes out at her aunt in parting. She declares that her best defense against going to hell is to avoid death. But with the help of a saintly fellow pupil (Aurelia Harrison as Helen Burns), she begins her path to moral transcendence. This theme will play out through the course of the story, as Jane is repeatedly taunted and tempted by the sort of common mortals with whom we are all familiar. Lyrics such as “forgiveness is the mightiest sword” never come across as preachy or dated, but land poignant and timeless. Given the choice to succumb to the brutality around her or to rise above it, she chooses the stratosphere.
After an adolescence spent in this refiner’s fire, it is no surprise to see, eight years later, that the young adult Jane is striking out as an enterprising governess in search of “liberty.” Korinne Peacock (adult Jane) takes the reigns with a modest confidence perfectly suited to her character. Her arrival at the grand estate of Thornfield Hall heralds the first real humor of the show. Mrs. Fairfax (Sundrina Barlow), the housekeeper, welcomes Jane with an excess of flutter and enthusiasm, made all the more comical next to Jane’s poise. Tiny Adele (Katelyn Sorenson) adds further lightness to the heretofore dark narrative as Jane’s young student. Finally, we meet the brash master of the house, Mr. Edward Rochester (Aaron Wood). An odd chemistry between Miss Eyre and Mr. Rochester is immediately apparent. He is clearly accustomed to benignly bullying with wit and whimsy; Jane playfully bats him down with her unflappable good sense. It is a joy to see their compelling alchemy throughout all the trials they will ultimately face together.
With a cast of 26, I regret that I cannot give due credit to all. I must at least note the dazzling Blanche Ingram, played to the fullest decadence by Amy Lemon. She represents her ilk perfectly. Mr. Rochester’s party guests serve as yet another backdrop to highlight the anomaly that is Jane Eyre. She sits humbly amidst their glitz and still manages to outshine them.
Such a large cast calls for a proportionately supportive production crew. Music director MarKay Anderson and Choreographer Taunia Wheeler may take a bow for their work in coordinating many large ensemble numbers, along with a variety of duets and solos. Because many of the cast members play multiple characters, costume designer Trisha Sorenson had a monumental task—nevermind the requirements of imagining period costumes in all states of decadence and drab. Many of the cast members themselves doubled as seamstresses and set and prop crew.
Director Amber Harrison touts the unique cohesion of participating in a community theatre production, an environment that lends itself particularly well to this story. Fans of the book will remember that the novel is told from the first-person viewpoint of Jane herself. Such a perspective is difficult to translate to the stage, but is cleverly and effectively executed. Harrison explains, “It’s not just Jane telling the story. It’s the whole ensemble telling Jane’s story. It’s almost as if they are the readers of the Charlotte Bronte novel, reading these passages in the book.” With the ensemble spanning the aisles, passing the narrative between themselves alternately in prose and song, the audience truly feels immersed in Jane’s story. Certain songs, such as “Sympathies Exist,” sent a chill down my spine.
Parents can comfortably bring any child old enough to appreciate the narrative to see Jane Eyre. Some moments—such as Mr. Rochester’s moment of masquerading in “The Gypsy”—will leave young and old gasping between guffaws. Other moments will provide great opportunities for discussions of human nature and choice. There are a few instances of mildly spooky suspense. None ought to feel the play too historically removed to be accessible. The language is adapted for modern consumption, with occasional anachronistic liberties taken (e.g., “Love is like a virus”) to communicate effectively with contemporary theatre-goers.
Jane Eyre continues its run Thursday February 27th through Saturday the 29th. Showtime begins at 7:00 p.m. all three nights. For tickets and more information visit www.vernaltheatre.com, or get your tickets at the box office on the night of the performance.