Here's another to join the parade of page-to-stage musicals inspired by 19th-century fiction. This ambitious adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's haunting classic Jane Eyre
for the musical theater seems to be part of a trend represented most famously by Les Misérables
. It also reflects the increasing pressure to schedule an original cast recording release as close as possible to a new show's Broadway opening: in this case, in fact, the CD was both recorded and released prior
to the show's opening in December 2000 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. But what's most significant for the artistic character of Jane Eyre: The Musical
is found in yet another pattern: like a number of his colleagues, composer-lyricist Paul Gordon comes to the project from a pop music industry background (best known for his hit "Friends and Lovers"). And quite a few of the show's numbers benefit from Gordon's catchy craftwork, weaving melodies that are clearly destined to be whistled long past curtain. Yet the effect is sometimes too facile, not diving as deep as we would like into the emotional predicaments of Brontë's characters. You begin to crave a more deftly defined and imagined variety of sound worlds (especially for the darker aspects of Thornfield Hall) than what is hinted at. Gordon doesn't forge any new paths, but his melodic fluency does have its moments of payoff--especially in the moving final duet "Brave Enough for Love," which is also strong enough to stand on its own.
Gordon's predilections as a would-be son of Sondheim are nevertheless clear, and he's telescoped the story into mostly effective lyrics, with some thoughtful juxtapositions of material. Most importantly, he understands that this is more than a Gothic romance, foregrounding the central message of forgiveness that Jane learns as a girl. He attempts to explore the injured sense of self shared by both Jane and Rochester and sets them on a painful, mutual voyage of discovery.
The creative team also includes the veteran duo John Caird (book and direction) and John Napier (scenic design), who have collaborated on such epics as Les Mis and Nicholas Nickleby (not to mention the Las Vegas Siegfried and Roy extravaganza). And the show's creators seem to share a vision geared toward the more operatic end of the spectrum (it was opera composers, after all, who early on claimed 19th-century Gothic fiction for the stage, as in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor), with an actual parody of coloratura in one showstopper ("The Finer Things") given to Blanche Ingram. Fortunately, the two principals have large, richly expressive voices to encompass the large, complicated emotions of these characters. Marla Schaffel singswith unusual beauty and brings dimension to her Jane, while James Barbour (whose resumé includes Beauty and the Beast) is never really threatening as Rochester, but rather a tortured soul who is sweet-voiced even at his most cynical. Mary Stout is a stitch as the blustery Mrs. Fairfax. While the show has already undergone a lengthy evolution from its very first workshops, the viability of its final, fully staged realization has yet to be determined. But this cast recording conveys an authentic sense of the musical's atmosphere and emotional scope. --Thomas May