Review: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, A Musical Drama
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s Persuasion is a great British novel, but can an American opera company from Chicago turn it into a great musical? Dear reader, Muddy heads to Paignton's Palace Theatre to find out.
A Chicago opera company coming to Devon to perform Jane Austen’s final novel as a musical? Sounds intriguing. With only three dates on their 2019 UK tour, The Chamber Opera Tours’ musical drama was a one-night-only performance for Paignton’s pretty 19th century Palace Theatre. Performed by a huge cast of more than thirty, with a 9-piece orchestra, a dressing room full of wigs (reputedly), and a full house packed to the rafters, buzzing with anticipation.
The novel has been adapted and arranged by the artistic director and lead soprano, Barbara Landis, who according to the programme, shares ancestry with Jane Austen on the English side of her family.
In case you need reminding, Persuasion is the tale of Anne Elliot: girl meets boy, girl is persuaded to reject boy due to his poor social standing, boy goes to sea and returns as Captain Wentworth, a made man played by a brooding Jeff Diebold, and everyone lives happily ever after. With a lavish ball, a seaside walk, a fair amount of eavesdropping and, because this is Jane Austen, some astute social commentary thrown in.
Landis plays both the lead of Anne, in winsome, eyelash-batting mode, and the be-shawled and bonneted narrator/novelist Austen, who kicks things off at her writing desk, telling the tale, quill in hand, to the niece and nephew sitting at her knee.
It’s in spoken and sung English, with lots of direct quotes and dialogue from the book, so you don’t miss out on your favourite quotes, like: “If there is any thing disagreeable going on, men are always sure to get out of it.”
The first half bounced along, a pleasing blend of serenely performed classics from Austen’s era, including Beethoven and Corelli, as well as toe-tapping sailor’s jigs. If the whoops from the audience were anything to go by, the highlight this side of the interval was the high-kicking Irish dancing, from world champion winning Peter Dziak and Ian Schwartz to a backdrop of full-throated tankard-slamming sailors. Michael Flatley eat your heart out.
The simple set of Regency furniture cleverly adapted to the various locations of Kellynch Hall, their downsized home in the city of Bath and the sparkling waters of Lyme Regis, with the help of changing images projected onto the back of the stage. The no-expense spared costumes were fabulous – high empire waistlines, cropped Spencer jackets and flowing Pelisse coats with all the period trimmings of ribbons and bows, parasols and sparkly tiaras.
There were loads of visual gags and fourth wall jokes, with a scene in which Anne’s vain father Sir Walter played wittily by John B Boss and eldest daughter Elizabeth (Kelli Morgan McHugh) look affronted as the narrator describes their failings. Anne’s ailing younger sister Mary (Anne Marie Lewis) gets a Muddy thumbs up for hammily throwing herself across sofas, hand pinned to forehand during increasing screechy bouts of attention-seeking hypochondria.
After a first half cliff-hanger which sees Anne’s sister in law and love rival Louisa get badly hurt in a fall, the second half delivered my favourite highlight of the show: snooty Lady Dalrymple engaging in a hilariously off-key singathon with her vacuous daughter who is clad in a ridiculously tall feather head-dress, far too big for her small frame and designed to make a silly character look even sillier, especially when nodding vigorously.
Slick and professional, full of American can-do and faultless choreography, it was a unique production with Barbara Landis capturing both Anne’s delicious pain at her unrequited love and the novelist’s love of her young heroines being in love. And even though it much of it was delivered as song, we still got to enjoy Austen at her best, as spoken word, including Wentworth’s heart-rending love letter: “I can listen no longer in silence…You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago.” Austen word-smithery of that calibre doesn’t need musical accompaniment.
If I was going to be picky, (and that’s my job as Muddy editor to tell you the truth) the English accents weren’t all exactly Gwyneth standard and the elderly lady sitting next to us confided she was struggling to understand some of the narration.
All in all, it was a visual and musical treat, performed in a lovely theatre – the oldest in Torbay – more than able to accommodate the comings and goings of a large, and larger-than-life, cast. And with loads coming up for the autumn season – including An Audience with Lesley Garrett and historian Lucy Worsley talking on Queen Victoria I’d say it’s high time to get on their mailing list.
Palace Theatre, Palace Avenue, Paignton, Devon, TQ3 3HF Tel: 01803 665800