Charlotte Brontë’s gothic 1847 novel Jane Eyre is one of those great, perfectly constructed 500-page bricks that’s almost impossible to get through. Perhaps then it’s suitable that its musical adaptation, written by John Caird with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, takes the frame of the story, radically condenses it, and eschews much of the characterization of its protagonist to make the thing altogether more palatable for modern audiences. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it feels at times that the musical is restraining its source material too tightly. The dour, realist novel becomes an almost too-cheerful, Disney-esque love story.
The songs are chipper- and many. Gordon’s generally obvious lyrics unfortunately describe the majority of the story. It would be hard for any writer to match the prose of Brontë, but Caird and Gordon don’t seem to be studying her very carefully. The play papers over many of the book’s themes- poverty and classism and the ways classism further affects sexism- to instead rifle through the story’s dense plot.
Thankfully, the flaws in the writing don’t extend to the production. ArtsWest’s production shines thanks to a wonderful cast and impressive effects. As directed by Mathew Wright, Jane Eyre: The Musical is an absolute crowd-pleaser. Lex Marcos designed the stage, which takes on the look of an English moor, evoking a beautiful outdoor space. Stars Tatum Poirier and Chelsea LeValley as the younger and older Jane Eyre are wonderful. The two Janes are often both present on stage, with one watching and guiding the other. This lends the musical an important throughline. Louis Hobson as Mr. Rochester plays well off of LeValley, and Ashley Koon is especially impressive playing three different roles. Her Bertha features in the musical’s most impressive sequence, a dimly-lit dance that escalates as she sets a fire.
Wright’s production is full of little flourishes like the dance number. Through lighting (provided by lighting designer Tristan Roberson) manages to return some of the novel’s oppressive, gothic tone. While Jane Eyre: The Musical is a too-simple script, Wright and his company have turned it into a certain delight.
Jane Eyre: The Musical is showing now at ArtsWest. To buy tickets or for more information, go to: https://www.artswest.org/theatre-plays/jane-eyre/.