Unashamedly old-fashioned and minus bells and whistles, this musical version of “Jane Eyre” can be celebrated as much for what’s missing as for what’s there. An intelligent sung-through score featuring densely packed lyrics (and few refrains), a single set, and the novel’s complex story told with twists and turns intact, this Paul Gordon/John Caird musical sits comfortably in the realm of theater — not spectacle — by avoiding the showstopping choreography, somersaulting sets and pabulum-fed storyline we’ve come to expect from mega-productions. All of which would suit the no-nonsense Jane quite well.
There are more than a few echoes of Caird’s “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Les Miserables” in this Gothic tale, from designer John Napier’s ingenious and striking skeletal scaffolding to the spotlighting used on the chorus that occasionally serves as Jane’s voice. And like the story’s ever-present moorland weather, the chorus weaves its way through the action, often speaking and singing lines straight from the novel.
Mirrored images, both physical and psychological, are integral to the novel, and Caird has incorporated and enhanced the motif. The adult Jane and young Jane appear together, and dead characters hover over the action and occasionally comment on or direct Jane’s moves. It works extremely well and adds to the mythic quality of Charlotte Bronte’s classic tale.
Purists may worry about other changes, including the presentation of Mrs. Fairfax, Thornfield Hall’s housekeeper, as jolly, buxom and comic, which might not be in keeping with the novel’s somber atmosphere, but is welcome relief after a half-hour of watching Jane suffer abuse at school. And the novel’s secondary story of St. John Rivers and his family, after Jane runs away from Thornfield, has been severely compressed.
In fact, that storyline is most problematic: Cut the scenes too much and they lose their raison d’etre; cut them not enough, and they become a drag on the musical’s main plot. The situation has not been fully resolved yet, but expert staging and some outstanding performances help ease the way past this and other compromises.
Anthony Crivello’s earthbound Rochester blends smoothly with Marla Schaffel’s splendid portrayal of the practical, yet highly spiritual, Jane; Crivello, though, falls short of capturing the smoldering danger that makes his character a pre-Harlequin hero. Angela Lockett, as Jane’s childhood friend Helen Burns, is magnificent, and Sara Farb’s young Jane is haunting without giving in to treacle.
Gordon’s score is rock-based, and there are several catchy tunes. Many of the numbers are short, while others are bridged by Larry Hochman’s complex orchestrations. This is not music you’ll go away humming on first hearing, and there are a few songs (and the odd lyric that catches a bad laugh) that could be cut without damaging the show.
One song, “Silent Rebellion,” should be the first to go. In it Jane espouses a feminist philosophy only hinted at in the novel. The anachronism jars unpleasantly with a production that is decidedly Victorian in context.
Generally, though, when “Jane” runs into problems, it is because of dedication to Bronte’s novel, not the opposite. Still, while one occasionally is tempted to say “too many words,” this “Jane Eyre” is a great musical-in-the-making: deeply literate, not always easy and ultimately very moving.