Musicals that sound silly on paper not infrequently emerge better onstage. That’s certainly the case with “Jane Eyre,” currently receiving its first full-fledged American production at the La Jolla Playhouse. A grander version of the work premiered in Toronto in late 1996, but this sparer staging is Broadway-bound. Yet though the cast has been reduced from 30 to 19, the show remains bloated. At three hours (there are 18 songs in the first act alone), it is simply too long. It is also resolutely grim — lacking even the noble aspirations that leavened “Les Miz’s” bleakness — and largely without substantial musical virtues, i.e., none of Paul Gordon’s tunes play in your head on the way out. Still, something about this show makes for an entertaining evening despite the longueurs. Maybe it’s just the story’s familiarity.
“Jane Eyre’s” faults will have to be fixed before this show gains any sort of Broadway credibility. First, the chronological imbalances need rectifying. After opening at a fast clip recounting the horrors of the protagonist’s early years, show slows to a snail’s pace once Jane (Marla Schaffel) enters the service of Edward Rochester (James Barbour), whose eerie, desolate manor house provides most of the atmosphere.
Comic relief shows up at this pile as well, in the persons of housekeeper Miss Fairfax (Mary Stout) and Blanche Ingram (Elizabeth DeGrazia), Rochester’s putative fiancee. But humor, welcome though it is, doesn’t jibe with this show’s grave tenor.
With seemingly every detail of the Bronte novel’s later chapters recounted, the show bogs down in a morass of gothic romanticism. Telescoping the action should help alleviate the problem, but that means severe cuts. John Caird’s book is (perhaps unavoidably) cliche-riddled, so no loss there, but some of Gordon’s pleasant if unremarkable pop-inflected numbers will have to go, too. Given the surfeit of ballads this show provides, plenty of options present themselves.
Co-directors Caird and Scott Schwartz will find the model for their show in its earliest numbers, which are not only snappy and even stirring (“Children of God”), but also well choreographed and cleverly presented. In the affecting “Let Me Be Brave,” Schaffel echoes her younger self (Tiffany Scarritt) in a number that seamlessly blends immediate crisis and memory play.
Show has a real asset in the low-key Schaffel, who sings Jane with conviction and ample, if not overwhelming, vocal power. It’s a tough role, in which she participates in 21 of the show’s 36 numbers. But Schaffel must reconcile the marked difference between her timid conception of the adult Jane and the powerful portrayal of young Jane etched by the talented Scarritt.
The role of the benighted Rochester, on the other hand, needs serious rethinking. Barbour lacks the rough charisma the part requires. And his high voice sounds all wrong for much of the material he must sing. Moreover, the actor simply tries too hard to be dangerous.
In smaller parts, Stout plays the knowing servant with aplomb, DeGrazia proves wonderfully grating as Blanche and Anne Allgood couldn’t be better as two very different unpleasant matrons, Mrs. Reed and Lady Ingram.
Securing five-time Tony winner John Napier for scenic design sounds like a coup, but his uncharacteristically minimalist approach fails to elicit sparks. Thanks to Chris Parry’s sepulchral lighting, it’s often hard to see Napier’s flying and rotating sets, but when one does, they are strikingly flimsy and spartan. It’s neither joke nor exaggeration to note that the most impressive and elaborate creation on the La Jolla stage is a spreading chestnut tree. Andreane Neofitou’s costumes, apt though they are, come mostly in shades of black.
If Gordon, Caird, Schwartz and company intend to make a splash on the Great White Way, they’re going to have perform major surgery on their lumbering, if pleasantly bland, creation. What worked fine for Bronte on the page clearly doesn’t succeed on the stage. Rethinking this show’s look, making it considerably tighter and recasting some roles should go a long way toward improving its prospects.