“Jane Eyre’s” long journey to Broadway is a trek worthy of the musical’s indomitable heroine herself. Just as Miss Eyre wandered the bleak countryside after her heedless flight from Thornfield and its baleful secrets, so has the Paul Gordon-John Caird tuner traveled a thorny five-year path to Broadway, beginning with productions in Wichita and Toronto, followed by a popular stand in the warmer clime of La Jolla two seasons ago. An expected arrival in New York last season was delayed when “Jane” found the doors of all appropriate theaters locked against her. Cruel fate!
The happy news is that she has at last arrived at the Brooks Atkinson; the less happy news is that she may need all the grit and tenacity she can muster to hang on. Aside from an apparently dauntless spirit, the musical has a few more things in common with its heroine. It’s worthy, decorous, respectable and handsomely, if unobtrusively, dressed. It, too, is romantic without succumbing to sentimentality.
But unlike its literary progenitor, the musical is a bit soporific. What’s missing is the fiercely beating heart beneath the black muslin, the ardent spirit that has entranced millions of readers in the century and a half since Charlotte Bronte’s novel was published.
In Caird’s book and Caird and Gordon’s lyrics — and Marla Schaffel’s stalwart but un-captivating performance — the musical’s heroine remains a remote, pallid figure, despite much impassioned vocalizing.
In her sensible black dress, she is often in danger of disappearing into the swirling shadows of John Napier’s impressionistic set designs.
Victorian novels, those “loose, baggy monsters,” as Henry James put it, are not easily boiled down into easily digestible theatrical treats. Caird has some experience turning the trick: Along with Trevor Nunn, he edited Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby” and Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” into stageworthy vehicles. Some of the techniques used in those productions are applied to Bronte’s masterpiece, but the result is less lively.
The difficulty stems from the source material itself: While the appeal of the Dickens and Hugo books resides in their larger-than-life characters and relentless plotting, the allure of Bronte’s novel is a more delicate thing; it’s a matter of sensibility. “Jane Eyre” draws the reader directly into the bruised heart of its embattled heroine — psychological immediacy, not narrative potency, is the key to its appeal, and that’s not easily translated into dramatic terms.
Caird and Gordon, along with co-director Scott Schwartz, do a creditable job of trying. To retain the personal perspective, they have Jane narrate her tale to us, addressing us somewhat hokily as “gentle audience.”
Most of the novel’s unforgettable Gothic incidents are here: the orphaned Jane’s cruel treatment at the hands of her aunt and her spoiled, sadistic cousin; further humiliation at the Lowood school, where she is befriended by the angelic Helen Burns, who then departs — lickety-split — to join her immortal brethren; and, of course, Jane’s great, doomed romance with her employer Edward Fairfax Rochester (James Barbour), dark of brow and gloomy of spirit, but sexy as hell.
The production moves with a shimmering fluidity in Napier’s inventive design conception, which dispenses (at great expense) with most physical scenery and conjures the settings of Jane’s journey through projections and eloquently dappled lighting effects, which are wondrously engineered by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. It’s an ingenious attempt to re-create the novel’s intimacy in visual terms; the story rises before us as a jumble of Jane’s liquid memories, easily scattered and rearranged.
But such stagecraft cannot, in the end, supply a depth of focus lacking in the material itself. On her placid surface, the book’s Jane is a self-effacing, sober young woman, but she whispers in our ear the excitements of a heart and mind unwilling to be bound by society’s rules.
Onstage, we see only the correct young woman with her hands forever folded stiffly before her; access to her emotional turbulence and fiery spirit comes only in flashes, and even these are transmitted in standard musical and dramatic terms. (The feints toward proto-feminism are particularly perfunctory.)
Gordon’s music, perhaps the show’s best chance at supplying the emotional texture needed to bind together its episodic plot, is for the most part as sober, dependable and unexciting as Jane herself.
Although it’s not through-sung, the score might as well be: The moodily undulating vocal lines only rarely break out into sharply defined melodies, and these come in familiar varieties (including the requisite jauntier comic numbers, for the dotty housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax, played with crowd-pleasing plumpness by the aptly named Mary Stout). If Gordon could lose the reams of earnest wallpaper music that bind together his moments of inspiration, the real promise — and real pleasure — in his score would be more readily apparent.
Caird’s dialogue is on the whole less melodramatic than his and/or Gordon’s lyrics (“Damn the passion, damn the skies/Damn the light that’s in her eyes,” sings the riled Mr. R), but “Jane Eyre” without the ruminating intelligence of Bronte is essentially a melodrama, and the sobriety of this production drains the life out of even the more appealingly lurid elements. (Of the Broadway season’s three new musicals, this is the only one that isn’t remotely vulgar — and guess what? It could use a little vulgarity.)
One impassioned duet for Jane and Mr. Rochester sounds much like the next, with “Secret Soul” being the standard-setter. Barbour and Schaffel are both strong singers who meet the challenges of their lengthy singing roles with energy and distinction. But sparks do not fly here — not that they’d be east to to pick out in the eternal gloaming.
Schaffel seems a bit constricted by her role. She’s too beautiful to be singing a mournful tune about her homeliness, for one thing, and is allowed few chances to drop the character’s veneer of propriety and let loose; Jane’s reaction to the sudden breaking off of her marriage ceremony seems strangely placid, for example — even if it’s strictly in keeping with the description in the novel.
Jane keeps stepping out of the story to narrate it, and seems always to be a step removed from its emotional convolutions.
Fans of the book may not notice: Bronte’s novel strikes such deep chords in its admirers that they’ll supply their own emotional connections. The story affirms the comforting, spiritually beautiful idea that souls destined to be together will eventually be united, even across a chasm of circumstance and social strictures.
I doubt it’s a coincidence, by the way, that all of the show’s six producers are women. Women will be its primary audience, and many a husband and boyfriend will be squirming through its nearly three hours, utterly mystified. It’s “The Full Monty” for die-hard romantics.