Jane Eyre Captivates Music Theater Audience

By Sherry Chastain Schreck - the Short Shakespeareans - © 1999

A showcase of excerpts from "Jane Eyre: The Musical" opened to a more than full house Friday evening at the Riverside Playhouse as people scrambled for last-minute seats. It closed with an enthusiastic ovation from a pleased and appreciative audience. Best of all, the new work--script and lyrics by Kari Skousen and Rebecca Thompson and musical composition and arrangement by Bill Kilpatrick--certainly proved that Music Theatre of Wenatchee, with its enduring local theatre tradition, is the perfect space to exhibit new and exciting creative work!

The performance opened with a tribute to Director Carol Bowen by Ms. Thompson for "making it happen" with an explanation that the musical was a "work in progress." Ms. Skousen dedicated the performance to the late Dr. Chuck Thompson, Rebecca Thompson's husband, who passed away last November.

Particularly after reading a few hundred essays on Jane Eyre for the National Advanced Placement Literature Examinations in June at Daytona Beach, Florida, I found the playwrights' and composer's treatment of Jane Eyre exhilarating and inspiring. And I think Friday night's audience walked away as I did, impressed with the magnitude of such a project, but best of all, savoring the showcase's superb fare: the delicate and mellifluous songs that stole the show!

Miranda Welsh, as the valorous and incisive Jane, thrills the audience with her marvelous singing and highly-developed dramatic characterization. Her opening song, "I Am an Arrow," which serves again as a reprise, says it all about the stalwart and clear-thinking Jane Eyre who battles her way through struggles at Thornfield and Moor House. The formidable Jane is an anomaly in the Victorian Era when women were destined to servitude.

Teaming up with Welsh is Jonathan Shuffield as Edward Rochester, and his rich and alluring voice is well-suited to Bill Kilpatrick's haunting melodies and Thompson-Skousen's lyrics that probe the psyche of a man drawn to Jane's intellectual beauty and the simpatico that he yearns for. An enticing aspect of this new musical is the exploration of the character of Rochester, his internal frustrations revealed in the lyrics and dialogue allowing the audience access to HIS point of view.

Welsh and Shuffield's vocal work was outstanding in their renditions of "One Love, Two Hearts." Singers and song were highly professional. Another favorite of mine was "Never Before."
Local theatre-goers also enjoyed the talent of Nick Bowen, in the character of St. John Rivers, the
minister who single-mindedly seeks to marry Jane for spiritual and practical reasons. Rivers attributes Jane with having a "man's brain and a woman's heart." The song, "Answer the Call," sung by Mr. Bowen and Ms. Welsh, was superb and also provided some comic relief in the obviously juxtaposed motivations for marriage!

Space is limited in singling out particular performances, but David Philips was outstanding as Richard Mason suffering injury from the crazed Bertha, excellently rendered by Director Bowen. Colleen Bowen achieves an entertaining character in the oppressive Mrs. Reed who dominates, literally enslaves, Young Jane.

There was some excellent acting in terms of emotional intimacy in the shared scenes of Kayli McCallister as Young Jane and Deborah Philips as Helen Burns, her friend who dies of consumption. Ms. McCallister's singing of "Mr. Reed's Spirit" was also quite effective in conveying Jane's loneliness and sense of abandonment. I particularly liked Ms. Philips acting performance in the comforting of Jane at Lowood School, excellent technique. Jim Hunt assumes a number of roles, including the stern Mr. Brocklehurst. Ami VanderSluis as Blanche Ingram in the party scene displays a beautiful singing voice, and Tohnya ShuffleId acts a memorable Mrs. Brocklehurst. Lani Lynch, Brooke Lacy, Annie Thompson, and Kelsie McCallister fill out the excellent cast.

Director Carol Bowen's staging was perfect and reminded me of Dr. Arthur Feinsod's text, The Simple Stage, in which he documents the transformation of American theatre from the heavy burdens of realistic scenery to the simple and effective mise-en-scene. The Bowen lighting team, Nick, Colleen, and Doug, carried off a masterful establishment of setting via lighting design. This is especially conducive to creating the stark atmosphere of Gateshead Hall (the Red Room), Lowood School, and Thomfield.

The collaboration of Director Carol Bowen, playwrights Rebecca Thompson and Kari Skousen, and Musical Composer, Bill Kilpatrick, is to be highly commended. Jane Eyre: The Musical may be a "work in progress," but it served up an enchanting evening of exquisite music and enjoyable entertainment!

"Jane Eyre" plays again Saturday, August 7th, at 7:00 P.M. at the Ethnic Cultural Center Theater for invited guests.