The prospect of making a musical out of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” — a novel that is very decidedly a “chick book,” as they say — may frighten off men who prefer their musicals with a little more pizazz, but it shouldn’t. Hale Centre Theatre’s production of it (the second one, after a very successful premiere run in 1994) is a marvelous piece of work, melodramatic throughout (as befitting the source material), but nonetheless sublime, effective and altogether grand.
The play opens at the Lowood School for Girls, where young orphan Jane Eyre (Alanna Cottam) is put because no one else wants her. As she sings the very pretty “Passionate Goodness” song, we see her age, first to 14 (Cara Paulsen), then to 21 (Jennie Whitlock), where she remains for the duration of the play.
Things turn a bit “Secret Garden”-y (there’s even a song about someone’s eyes, like in “SG”) when she gets a job at a musty old mansion as a governess for illegitimate young Adele (Jenessa Bowen), ward of the mysteriously depressed Edward Rochester (Mark Gollaher). The house has secrets, as does Rochester, but these and other mysteries (like who the “Richard Mason” character is) are downplayed, giving emphasis instead to the inevitable romance between Jane and Rochester.
By intermission, nothing terribly exciting has happened yet, plot-wise (well, except for a devil-coiffed crazy woman who emerges from the attic long enough to set Rochester’s bed on fire, but you can’t really count that). This is typical of, ahem, “chick plays” (I’m sorry, but there doesn’t seem to be a politically correct term that expresses the thought nearly so well): heavy on romance, light on plot. Keep those questions understated. Introduce a possible love triangle. Let the characters pour their hearts out to us, but not to each other.
I’m not criticizing this genre of storytelling; I’m merely reporting how it is. And the fact that such dilly-dallying with the narrative doesn’t usually appeal to me any more than, say, reading a Charlotte Bronte novel does, speaks volumes about this play’s accessibility and emotional center. Gollaher and Whitlock give their characters such life, realism and heart that it’s impossible not to be sucked in to their story, no matter how little a “story” there actually is.
By the middle of the second act, when things are revealed and events finally occur, we’re right there with them, feeling the passion and longing that hang on the play like a London fog.
The songs, by Patricia York (who also scripted) and Jerry Williams are top-notch, too, particularly the love ballads. (The peppy songs don’t fare as well, though they’re nothing to be ashamed of.) If there were a soundtrack, I would buy it; if there were sheet music, I would learn the songs on the piano.
It’s that kind of show — the kind you want to remember, the kind that sticks with you. Even for its genre, it gets a little slow-moving here and there — especially with would-be missionary St. John (Brandon Cecala) near the end — and you may find yourself squirming a bit once you pass the 2 1/2-hour mark. (There’s also a bit of a goof with a scene that begins with a character commenting on how early in the morning it is, but ends, three songs later, with Jane declaring it’s past 9 and time to put Adele to bed.) But hang in there, and soak up some very well-played emotion in this beautiful, non-sappy love story.
In this show, when speaking to the character named St. John, the British accents made them say "Sin-Gin." I had to hear that several times before I realized they were saying "St. John."