Sense & Sensibility (May 12, 2015)

Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) and Marianne Dashwood (Megan McGinnis)
Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) and Marianne Dashwood (Megan McGinnis)

 

As the curtain fell on the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s winning production of “Sense and Sensibility,” we found ourselves reflecting on a number of parallels between the new musical and Disney’s 2013 animated juggernaut, “Frozen.” As directed by CST’s Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, the expansive, romantic novel, like the cartoon megahit, is intelligently distilled for audiences to its fundamental narrative — the love story of two fiercely devoted sisters. Here’s the take from two female reviewers sharing the work, Becky Sarwate and Beth Dugan.

Becky Sarwate
Also similarly to the wildly successful “Frozen,” the adventures of Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) and Marianne Dashwood (Megan McGinnis) are traversed through a combination of spoken dialogue and song. And though my personal favorite, “Wrong Side of Five and Thirty,” is unlikely to capture the zeitgeist on a “Let It Go” scale, the score by Paul Gordon is competent. Not brilliant, but seamless and well-sung by the well-chosen cast.

But music aside, the beauty of any rendition of the Jane Austen treasure is the nuanced, accepting and trial-filled relationship between decorous and restrained elder sister Elinor and passionate, unbridled younger sibling Marianne. The ladies’ divergent approaches to emotional life, contained versus unchecked, are dramatically tested by the relationships that unfold on the page and stage.

Wayne Wilcox as Edward Ferrars, teams with Rietkerk to absolutely nail the emotional game of chicken played between Elinor and Edward, founded on modesty and lack of presumption rather than craft. Wilcox’s unique brand of awkwardness made this Ang Lee devotee forget all about Hugh Grant.

McGinnis is given a script that renders the early Marianne a touch more self-aware and likable, which only serves her general predilection for blunt honesty. McGinnis’ grasp of irony and comedic timing are something special, and even those devoted Austenphiles who know the story’s denouement well will worry and root for Marianne’s happiness. And in another positive twist with this rendering, the chastened woman who marries Colonel Brandon (Sean Allan Krill) seems a lot happier with her choice than her literary counterpart.

And who wouldn’t be happy to land Krill’s Brandon? Willoughby, Schmilloghby, with all due respect to the talented Peter Saide. The material and the performance strike the right notes of the character’s steady stability, while imbuing him with more elements of lighthearted fun. Krill’s rendition of the aforementioned “Wrong Side of Five and Thirty” is heartbreaking, endearing and beautifully performed. Krill is the standout in a uniformly gifted cast.

“Sense and Sensibility” runs through mid-June. It is an all-ages must for Austen fans, and a fine time for anyone who appreciates good storytelling and a win for sisterly affection.

Beth Dugan
As a huge Jane Austen fan (“Sense and Sensibility” is my #3 favorite), I was elated to see this classic reimagined as a musical. The Dashwood sisters are some of my favorite siblings in literature, and the performances by Sharon Rietkerk and Megan McGinnis did them justice.

The inevitable stripping down of the plot was a testament to how subtlety complex Austen’s works are. Though they seem like simple stories about women trying to get husbands and dealing with family matters, they are nuanced, multi-layered and robust.

With the loss of Mrs. Dashwood, the younger sister Margaret and the majority of the minor character that add such richness to the plot, the production still wove an engaging and entertaining story.

The difference in the way Elinor and Marianne are portrayed is palpable. Marianne is less self-involved, more restrained and therefore, easier to like. Much of her obsession over Willoughby was cut, rendering her more a figure of pity rather than a creator of her own fate, as she is in the book.

Elinor is lacking her lightly sardonic wit and teasing manner, and is left with only her duty and practicality. With the third sister and widowed mother missing from the story, and from the list of Elinor’s burdens, she just comes across as a wet blanket. Though the luminous Rietkerk imbues her with life and verve, it is hard to respect Elinor as the stalwart rock of her family that she is.

Paul Gordon’s book, music and lyrics compliment the story well, as it is moves through its many moods of somber melancholy, joyful and finally celebratory. Though the songbook may not contain show-stoppers or hit tunes, the songs moved the story forward and add another layer to the performances.

The scene-stealing performance by Wayne Wilcox as Edward Ferrars is a high point of the show. He’s comedic timing for this version of Edward are perfect and a lovely foil for this version of Elinor, who is only dutiful and practical with little of her light humor and sardonic wit from the original story.

Director Barbara Gaines continues her winning streak here. “Sense and Sensibility” is a wonderful show, full of life and song. The performances are strong and memorable. Jane Austen has been given her due.

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