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Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: A Musical, Chamber Opera Chicago, 2010

In late February and early March, Chamber Opera Chicago offered the local premiere of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: A Musical. The music and lyrics are a collaborative effort by Lindsay Warren Baker and Amanda Jacobs. Attendees at the Chicago AGM in 2008 will remember the tantalizing preview of this work they have been writing and revising for the past several years.

This has been a labor of love for Baker and Jacobs, and it shows. They have incorporated as much of the plot as possible, although the piece doesn’t feel rushed. Everyone’s favorite lines are there, as are almost all of the characters (I saw the opening night performance on February 27; some of the parts were double cast in subsequent performances). The performers have to be able to manage a kaleidoscope of musical styles. Although a lot of the music has a definite “Broadway sound,” there are enticing hints of Mozart, Viennese operetta and Gilbert and Sullivan (and a direct quote from Beethoven), without descending into pastiche. The added Austen-flavored lyrics are cleverly interwoven with the music.

Steven Daigle’s energetic production mostly plays the piece for laughs, but there is no lack of drama in the work itself. Darcy’s first proposal is a conflict of operatic proportions, and two songs in particular, Elizabeth’s “When I Fall in Love” (which becomes an important leitmotif that threads through the piece) and Darcy’s “Fine Eyes,” are genuinely touching. Victoria Bond conducted the 17-piece orchestra with spirit and warmth.

Not only does Jane Austen appear “above the title” (as they say in Hollywood), she is also a character in the show (played to the hilt by COC Artistic Director Barbara Landis). This solves the chronic problem of most Austen dramatizations: the loss of the narrator’s ironic voice (some of the narrative lines are given to the characters as well). We see Austen reveling in an author’s powers of creation (the ecstatic look on Ms. Landis’s face when finding herself in the midst of the Netherfield Ball that she conjured up was priceless), then interacting with and becoming emotionally involved with her characters.

One of the virtues of the show is that this is a real ensemble piece. True, the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy remains central, but almost every character has a moment—or an entire number—to shine. Danielle McCormick-Knox was just what an Elizabeth ought to be: bright and sparkling of both voice and personality, but with great depth of character. Her heartfelt solo in the Pemberley portrait gallery was the emotional high point of the show. Nick Sandys captured both Darcy’s hauteur and his developing ease and warmth (although his richly-toned voice was stronger in speech than in song).

It is difficult to single out individual performances in such a large cast, but some of the standouts included: the honeyed tenor of Drake Dantzler (Bingley) blending with Sarah McIntyre (Jane)’s sweet soprano in “Isn’t She Wonderful?”; Kristin Johnston (Lydia) going to town (or to Brighton, at least) with a chorus line of Dream Soldiers in “I Can’t Resist a Redcoat”; Madeline Duffy-Feins (Mary) in a deliciously excruciating solo at the Netherfield Ball; Nancy Wiebe Mazurowski’s shimmering high soprano in Miss Bingley’s (too few) lines; and James Rank’s insinuating (and finely sung) Wickham. Anne Marie Lewis made a meal out of “My Poor Nerves” (what else would Mrs. Bennet’s solo be called?), and Alex Honzen’s sardonic bass-baritone was perfect for Mr. Bennet’s “Silly Girls.”

The Atheneum Theater was packed with an appreciative audience. For determined Janeites who can never get enough of P&P, this was an exciting opportunity to experience the work anew.

-Jeffrey Nigro, Letter from Chicago, Spring 2010