Right away, in Paul Gordon’s musical based on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” the central character, Elizabeth Bennet (an instantly likeable Mary Mattison), intones the novel’s famous first line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” and adds, “Not true.” So far so good.
But minutes later she sings, defiantly, “I’m headstrong!”
But “Headstrong,” the second song in the world-premiere now at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, comes too early in the show; it hasn’t been earned, and it’s also too blatant. I couldn’t help thinking, “Don’t tell me, show me.”
Similarly, midway through the first act, Mr. Darcy (Justin Mortelliti) confesses, through song, his unexpected attraction to Lizzy. Ought we to know his inner thoughts so early on—or, indeed, at all? Didn’t we love, in the novel, that he was such a contradictory, implacable figure?
Musicals are of course all about characters’ inner voices — they often sing the subtext that they are unable to speak. But Austen’s wry narrative tone is essential to a comedy of manners like this, and in Gordon’s musicalization, her subtlety is often lost.
Still, there’s much to like in director Robert Kelley’s sumptuously staged approach to the Regency-era novel.
For one, composer-writer-lyricist Gordon, who has previously set Austen novels to music, knows his subject well.
And the songs, accompanied in the pit by a live (but sometimes overpowering) band, vary from the wonderfully droll “Her Ladyship’s Praise” and “Last Woman on Earth” (Lizzy’s spirited rejection of Mr. Collins) to the touching “A Man of My Acquaintance,” a gentle duet for Lizzy and her sad sister, Jane, played gracefully by Sharon Rietkerk.
There is also Joe Ragey’s elegant design with projections that so beautifully conjure the period setting, and Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes; Lizzy’s have a slightly modern twist to mirror her ahead-of-her-time mindset.
And of course Austen’s own text makes up the bulk of the dialogue.
But, while the entire cast comprises strong singers, some of the characters fail to emerge as distinctive or imaginatively idiosyncratic individuals. Especially problematic: Neither Mr. Darcy’s anti-social tendencies, nor his ardor, ring true.
Other actors — Lucinda Hitchcock Cone’s haughty Lady Catherine, Brian Herndon’s creepy Mr. Collins, Monique Hafen Adams as Miss Caroline, Heather Orth’s fluttery Mrs. Bennet, Melissa WolfKlain’s oddball bookworm Mary — register more strongly.
But for Austen’s distinctive tone, read the book.
Pride and Prejudice
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Jan. 4
Tickets: $30 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, theatreworks.org