Cleveland Musical Theatre’s revisited ‘Jane Eyre’ a dark, delicate and disarming musical
By Bob Abelman
Any stage version of a weighty, timeworn Victorian tome is likely to come up short in terms of content, context and authorial voice. Such complex storytelling is not easy to capture in the short form typical of live theater.
Such is certainly the case with modern plays based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1909 novel “The Secret Garden,” Victor Hugo’s 1862 “Les Misérables” and Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 “Jane Eyre.”
To compensate, each of these works has been imbued with musical numbers to augment the storytelling, and in their Broadway productions, the stages have been saturated with extraordinary and ominous theatricality to help bring the works to life.
A new streamlined rendition of composer-lyricist Paul Gordon and librettist John Caird’s 2000 Tony-nominated “Jane Eyre” – receiving its world premiere by Cleveland Musical Theatre, a recently-formed professional production company – is even further abridged.
An original song list of 50 numbers has been reduced to 36, which is delivered by a 10-member cast rather than the original 30. A running time just shy of three hours has been cut to slightly more than two. And all of this takes place within a single set – the stark interior of a large room in a gothic mansion, designed by Gabriel Firestone.
The musical traces the major moments in the novel – the courageous orphan Jane Eyre’s tragic upbringing at the hands of her dismissive aunt and sadistic cousin, the humiliation and friendship she encounters at the Lowood School, and of course, her passionate love affair with the damaged, brooding Edward Rochester.
But we never do witness the many experiences that result in what she calls her “expanded mind” or the evolution that takes place from her serving as Rochester’s employee to becoming his “second self.”
Still, this magnificent production proves that less is more, for what happens on that stage in this room is lush, imaginative and thoroughly engaging.
From the start, this production retains and accentuates the first-person intimacy of the novel by having every member of the ensemble – Alison England, Cody Gerszewski, Lauryn Hobbs, Greg Violand, Laura Perotta, Fabio Polanco, Emma McClelland and Genny Lis Padilla – serve as Eyre’s narrative voice in addition to playing multiple roles. This keeps her from having to step out of the story; instead, she is an invested observer of it when not an active participant, which is intriguing.
The ensemble’s voices blend beautifully to form a rich tapestry of sound that gets woven into the storytelling. And they are also occasionally showcased, such as in England’s wonderfully comedic “Slip of a Girl” as housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax, Hobb’s beautiful “Forgiveness” as Eyre’s childhood friend, Helen Burns, and McClelland’s “Lonely House” as the young Jane Eyre.
The string-centric music, with new arrangements and orchestration by Steven Tyler and Brad Haak, becomes a delicate, buoyant thing when performed by a mere seven talented musicians under Nancy Maier’s direction.
Everyone on stage executes Martín Céspedes’ graceful choreography with astounding fluidity as they usher in and remove furnishings that define a new location, transition from one character to another, or create dramatic tableaus that capture – along with T. Paul Lowry’s haunting projections, Benjamin Gantose’s gothic lighting design, Carlton Guc’s dramatic sound design, and Sydney Gallas’ period-perfect costuming – the tenor of Eyre’s memories.
Even with all the impressive stagecraft on display in this production, it is Céspedes’ inventive stage movement and Miles J. Sternfeld’s direction of it that truly defines this revisited “Jane Eyre.”
And even with an exceptional ensemble, it is the lead players who carry this show. Broadway alums Andrea Goss (“Indecent,” “Once”) as Eyre and Matt Bogart (“Jersey Boys,” “Aida”) as Rochester are magnificent.
Goss’ performance captures Eyre’s humble demeanor, ardent spirit and the innate intelligence that Brontë bestowed upon this iconic character. And her pure and powerful voice raises the level of professionalism of this production and the audience’s enjoyment of it.
Much of Rochester’s dialogue fluctuates between melodramatic and melancholic, yet Bogart manages to use this to inform the portrayal of a more complicated, conflicted and intriguing man. His beautifully performed, impassioned duets with Goss, particularly “Secret Soul,” are absolutely stunning.
Eight stage adaptations of the much-beloved “Jane Eyre” appeared in England and America between 1848 and 1882. There have been many others since, but it is hard to imagine any better than the one currently being staged by Cleveland Musical Theatre. This is a gorgeous production with a very limited run. CV
World premiere of “Jane Eyre” by Cleveland Musical Theatre
WHERE: Tri-C East’s Rose and Simon Mandel Theatre, 4250 Richmond Road, Highland Hills
WHEN: Through Sept. 9
TICKETS: $15 to $45, call 216-584-6808 or go to clevelandmusicaltheatre.org
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 6, 2018.
Lead image: Matt Bogart as Edward Rochester and Andrea Goss as Jane Eyre | Photo / Black Valve Productions