Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Sense and Sensibility": ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

Jane Austen's first published novel, "Sense and Sensibility" was brought out in 1811, only five years before the author's death. Her career was short but her influence has been great, as her novels "Pride and Prejudice" (1813), "Mansfield Park" (1814) and "Emma" (1815) have cemented her reputation, not only as one of the first great female novelists, but as a chronicler of the tribulations of the young heroine in upper class Georgian England.

Austen's novels are complicated, so Roger Parsley and Andy Graham's adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility", which is having its American Premiere at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, has been greatly simplified. If you love Jane Austen, if you have always had a soft spot in your heart for free-spirited Marianne and her strong sister Elinor, you will feel at home here.

Also excellent are Stacy Ross (who was so good recently in SF Playhouse's "Coraline") as Aunt Jennings, whose primary interest is digging up and distributing gossip; and Mark Anderson Phillips as Colonel Brandon, the older patrician who feels he has no chance with Marianne. Rounding out the cast are Thomas Gorrebeeck as Elinor's suitor Edward (Mr. Good) and Michael Scott McLean as Willoughby (Mr. Bad).

In Jane Austen's day, the eldest brother inherited the family estate and all other children were left on their own. So for young women, the procuring of a husband of wealth was their only means of retaining the lives they had known as children. These men needed to be judged by the standards of the day. If we may compare the three men in the story to bears, we would say that Austen feels Willoughby has too much porridge, Edward too little and the Colonel's is just right.

Every costume designer must dream of working on a Jane Austen novel with so many elaborate period costumes. Fumiko Bielefeldt's gowns -- and the boots! -- are perfect.

But -- and this is something they will have to deal with -- the music! Director Robert Kelley and Sound Designer Cliff Caruthers have chosen to insert songs into the production that they imagine Jane Austen would have loved. This decision might not be a bad one if they didn't also decide that Marianne should sing most of them. So we have the poor distraught young lady, heart in hand as her suitor departs forever, repairing to the pianoforte to sing a jaunty little air. Again and again she turns to face the audience and croon a hey nonny nonny. The mood is shattered each time.

When the ensemble sings together, as on the opening number in Act Two, everything works. But the heroine should not be the chanteuse -- at least, not this heroine. It bogs things down, especially in Act Two which plays long.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Sense and Sensibility" Three Stars with a bauble of despair. The actors, staging and costuming earn one star each. But the bauble -- that decision to add warbling songs into the mix -- at this point is a fatal one.

"Sense and Sensibility"
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Sept. 18

Photo Credits: Tracy Martin and Mark Kitaoka

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