By Charles Brousse
If you are an admirer of Jane Austen’s fiction, and have a soft spot for the more traditional style of American musicals than most of what has been generated on and off-Broadway in the past few decades, then you ought to hop in your car, page an Uber or engage whatever mode of transport you prefer, and head over to Fort Mason Center on the San Francisco waterfront. There, ensconced in what used to be the Magic Theatre’s venue, the Southside Theater, you’ll find Independent Actors of Marin’s (IAM) delightful production of Pride and Prejudice—The Musical.
Be forewarned, however: You better hurry, because this staged version of Austen’s most beloved novel, which debuted in London in 2012, is scheduled to end its American premiere run on Sunday, October 9. Given the uncertainties that face such projects, who knows when, or where, it will turn up next.
I must admit to having some qualms when my editor asked if I wanted to review the show. First of all, I knew nothing about IAM, its producer, even though the company has been around in one form or another since 1998. Was it up to the task?
Second, I wondered if the world really needed yet another adaptation of Austen’s fictional account of the Bennet household in early 19th century England. There have already been multiple versions for stage, screen and TV. Would the musical comedy format add to our appreciation of this gem of romantic literature, or would it undermine the original’s fragile beauty?
Turns out I needn’t have worried on either count. The show is about as close to a perfect package of script, music directing, performers and overall production quality as one could realistically expect from a low-budget, non-professional company. Beyond that, the energy and talent of its mostly youthful cast give it a freshness that is often lacking in more lavish treatments.
While performances are on the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate, all three of its creators are women (a rarity in itself) who have spent much of their lives here in Marin. Rita Abrams (score, lyrics, musical direction) taught in county elementary schools before gaining national recognition (including a pair of Emmy Awards) for her hit recording of “Mill Valley,” performed by a children’s chorus. In later years, she has collaborated on a number of well-received satirical revues that explore the prickly nature of male/female relationships. Josie Brown (book), is a popular writer of novels sold through Amazon and other vendors, and stage director Lexie Papedo Gasparini is an experienced professional actress who graduated from Drake High School. To their immense credit, these three have managed to pull off the difficult task of fashioning a musical treatment of a famous literary milestone that, although modern in form, carefully preserves the vision of the original source.
Most readers will be familiar with Austen’s semi-autobiographical tale of how Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, a moderately well-off English couple domiciled in the English countryside, are faced with the discomfiting necessity of having to find affluent husbands for their five marriageable daughters in order to preserve their comfortable standard of living, and how that imperative leads to the intrigues and moral dilemmas that make the story so gripping. Geoffrey Colton is perfectly cast as the imperturbable patriarch, and Kathy Deichen, IAM’s founder and artistic director, is equally convincing as his well-meaning but fluttery wife. Among the other female leads, outstanding performances are turned in by Brittany Law as the Bennets’ remarkably composed elder daughter Elizabeth, and Juliet Heller is a strong Cousin Charlotte.
The male contingent is headed by David Crane as the cocky Mr. Darcy, who finally meets his match in Elizabeth Bennet’s steely determination to find out the truth about his background.
Space limitations make it impossible to evaluate everyone in the 17-member cast. What I can say is that from top to bottom it is an outstanding ensemble. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t also mention that the show’s period costumes (no designer credited) are absolutely gorgeous. To repeat: It’s the whole package. Future potential producers take notice.
NOW PLAYING: Pride and Prejudice runs through October 9 at the Southside Theater, Bldg. D, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco; 415/345-7575; iamtheatre.org.