Many people have adapted Jane Austen’s work to the stage, but I know of none who has succeeded as well as Mr. Paul Gordon, author of the book, music, and lyrics. Sense and Sensiility is not only beautiful theatrically and musically, but it remains faithful to Ms. Austen’s novel, adds a lush musical score which evokes the period, clarifies her characters, and weaves throughout the entire intricate action. If anything, Mr. Gordon’s musical theater chamber piece, as brilliantly directed by Barbara Gaines at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, makes Ms. Austen’s tale of orphaned sisters making their way in a cruel world, even more accessible to the public than the novel.
The music, scenery, lighting, costumes, and witty dialogue are simply charming. Many of the songs linger with the theatergoer afterward, especially the “name” songs, “Elinor”, “Lydia”- (the finest tribute written to that female appellation since Harry Ruby’s homage to the “Tattooed” one) , “Willoughby”, and “Edward and I”.
The book is so strong it could stand as a straight play without the music. And the singers are all equally fine actors, especially Megan McGinnis (Marianne), Sharon Rietkerk (Elinor), Sean Allan Krill (Colonel Brandon), Michael Allan Linder (Lord Middleton), and Paula Scrofano (Mrs. Jennings). Peter Saide (Mr. Willoughby) and Wayne Wilcox (Edward Ferrars) play their conflicted roles with clarity, sensitivity, and panache.
Sense and Sensibility is so good it occasionally recalls another great period musical, Les Misérables. Marianne’s almost terminal illness harkens to Fantine’s death bed scene, while Lord Middleton and Mrs. Jennings function as a kindly version of the Thenardiers .
The musical’s chamber play quality soars to grandeur with the scenic design of Kevin Depinet, the costumes of Susan E. Mickey, and lighting of Donald Holder. Time and space flow seamlessly as Ms. Gaines moves her players in their magical environment as flexible as it is breathtaking.
Paul Gordon’s achievement places him in the ranks of an elite group of men who composed book, music, and lyrics for a historically successful musical: Meredith Wilson with The Music Man, Lionel Bart with Oliver, and Jonathan Larson with Rent.
This Sense and Sensibility is so good in so many ways, it would have Ms. Austen’s biggest detractors – Charlotte Brontë, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Virginia Wolf – all lining up to sign the petition to get Ms. Austen’s face on the British ten-pound note.