Monday, October 3, 2011

New Musicals Take on Old Classics

It was a weekend of musical adaptations, as I continued on my NYMF viewing with Gatsby: The Songs in Concert and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, A Musical. Both of these shows are takes on some of my most beloved books (I was also an English Major, so it comes with the territory), and I was both apprehensive and excited to see how they would be interpreted on the stage and in song.
Gatsby, a one-night-only concert, was one of the shows I was looking forward to most. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel is nothing short of a masterpiece, a great narrative of selfishness, recklessness, love, and wealth in the jazz age. Gatsby the musical, written by Hugh Wheeler, Lee Pockriss, and Carolyn Lee, was Broadway bound in the 1970s, but never quite made it to The Great White Way. Performed in concert by insanely talented Matt Cavenaugh, Autumn Hurlbert, Jenny Powers, Megan Sikora, and Max von Essen, the concert was a wonderful peek into a once-lost musical. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical when the band started up and the first song began, outright declaring that it was the "Jazz Age." One of my favorite parts of Gatsby the novel is the layers of meaning throughout; on the surface, the plot can seem quite melodramatic (affairs, parties, murders, and misunderstandings) but the real joy of the book is seeing this world through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a narrator who tries to see his companions for who they really are, while also getting caught up in the decadent world of 20s New York himself.

Where Gatsby the musical really shines is in its darker moments, in the places where, past the bravado, the music reveals darker desires and sadder truths that entice and force the characters into their lives of frivolity. Though it was hard to always understand the exact context of certain songs when presented in the brief concert format, I thought the Daisy character really sparkled the brightest, especially with her first number "Sooner or Later," a sultry and insistent song about cheating husbands. From there, it was interesting to see how certain refrains repeated themselves throughout the show, changing meaning as parties were thrown, loves were rediscovered, and choices were made. I would love to see this show as a fully staged production someday.

The other show I saw this past weekend was Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacob's Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, A Musical. A reinterpretation of Jane Austen's timeless novel, I am happy to report that this musical adaptation is quite a crowd-pleaser. With deftly drawn characters (which is important when handling the iconic Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy) and lively pacing, the show was a joy to watch. Perhaps one of the most successful additions to the original novel is that this stage adaption features Jane Austen herself as she revisits the novel's first incantation, First Impressions, trying to rewrite her own work to submit for publication. Donna Lynne Champlin (who was blogging about her experience with the show on The New York Times ArtsBeat blog) delights in this role, adding a nice presence for the characters to play off of throughout the show. It lent a winking eye to those already familiar with the story and helped move the plot along swiftly and evenly. There was palpable chemistry between Doug Carpenter's Darcy and Patricia Noonan's Elizabeth, and all the other characters had their own moments in the spotlight as well. The rest of the run is sold out, but I can easily see this show going on to a longer life, as even the most fervent of Austen fans will find something to enjoy here.

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