You don’t have to be a rabid Jane Austen fan—though I confess I am one—to love the world premiere musical “Sense and Sensibility” at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, directed by CST Artistic Director Barbara Gaines.
CST commissioned the work by Tony Award-nominated composer Paul Gordon, who also provided book and lyrics as well as music. Gordon has a way with period pieces (previous works include musicalized versions of Austen’s “Emma,” Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” and “Daddy Long Legs”), as his gorgeous harmonies make evident.
Any production of “Sense and Sensibility” lives and dies with the casting of the Dashwood sisters: Marianne, the younger, is all sense, all feeling, while Elinor, the elder sister, is the sensible one. As portrayed by über-talented actors Megan McGinnis and Sharon Rietkerk, respectively, the Dashwood sisters live and thrive despite the trying circumstances thrown at them by the author.
McGinnis perfectly captures the passion and willfulness of Marianne, while Rietkirk is simply exquisite as the practical and loyal Elinor. Their voices are magic, both singly and in tandem; their portrayals of the characters are fully believable.
The suitors are a mixed lot. Colonel Brandon, played by Sean Allen Krill (a near-double of actor Alan Tudyk), has a magnificent baritone, and gets to sing the one piece you will be humming when you leave the theatre, “Wrong Side of Five & Thirty.” Krill captures both the deep loyalty and self-deprecating humor of Brandon.
The handsome Peter Saide, who plays Willoughby, the rogue who does the impetuous Marianne wrong, had a wide vibrato that I found off-putting. Wayne Wilcox dithers charmingly as Elinor’s friend and erstwhile beau, Edward Ferrars, and his voice is pleasant.
Comic relief comes in the form of two couples, the social climbing John and Fanny Dashwood (the droll David Schlumpf and Tiffany Scott), and the affable Lord Middleton (Michael Aaron Linder) and his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Paula Scrofano). The former callously toss the Dashwood girls out (“We do them a favor by releasing them from the burden of wealth!”), the latter take them in. Missing in this production is a Mrs. Dashwood, mother to Elinor and Marianne. Apparently the character was deemed superfluous, or just one plot line too many.
The design team has done a lovely job. Kevin Depinet’s set suggests both mansion and cottage with little more than floating windows, enormous paintings in gilded frames and chandeliers. Susan E. Mickey’s sumptuous costumes accurately depict the feeling and fashions of the early nineteenth century, complete with princess waistlines and heaving bodices. A shout-out also to the remarkable wig work of Melissa Veal, which is extensive in this production.
You’ll be swept away by this timeless story. Though written over two hundred years ago, the works of Jane Austen so perfectly capture human nature and all its foibles that they never get old.