Jane Austen with Songs in Greenwood

Taproot Theatre has taken on a major challenge offering up the world premiere of a musical version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The work was initially work-shopped through a new play festival at the 5th Ave. Director Karen Lund and her cast have been fine-tuning the production with book writer Harold Taw and music composer Chris Jeffries bringing the work to life. Its birth, this week, coincides with the bicentennial of the passing of the remarkable British author. While the play could still use some fine-tuning before it should move on, there are enough good things happening on the Greenwood stage to warrant you checking it out.

The novel and play focus on Anne Elliot, the unmarried daughter from a family struggling to hang on to its aristocratic status during the post Napoleonic Wars period. Anne’s petty and conniving father and sisters treat her like a Regency Era Cinderella. Cayman Ilika portrays Anne. The program notes that she was the only choice the composers ever had for the role; they knew what they were doing. Ilika brings a gorgeous soprano voice to the part and she is more than able to portray the spunk and wit required of an Austen heroine.

Her love interest here is Captain Wentworth, played by the equally talented Matthew Posner. In a cast full of remarkably strong voices, these two really shine. We are in good hands whenever either of them turns to song. The songs for the most part, are generated by the subtext of the characters’ thoughts. The opening prologue number has Anne expressing her anxiety about remaining single as well as her regrets that she may have lost her chances being with the love of her life. She courageously faces up to her plight singing, “This doesn’t hurt; I’m made of wood.” While this is an excellent method in which to glean musical numbers from Austen’s text, more variety might be needed to generate a couple of different songs within the play.

In the opening scenes, choreographer Katy Tabb utilizes a great idea having the two potential lovers do abbreviated waltz steps that really exist only in their minds. The dancing indicates that the overwhelming societal restrictions of the Regency Era can’t totally stifle the passion of these two sensitive souls. Interestingly, the Captain does not possess the great wealth Austen’s other leading men always have. Still, he is the obvious “good catch” in Anne’s world.

Persuasion is a big novel with lots of characters, requiring most of the cast to go into double if not triple duty. Two standouts here are Sophia Franzella who has some hilarious moments playing Anne’s flirtatious rival as well as a town gossip and Ryan Childers who must don at least five different costumes portraying a variety of Austen’s players. The entire cast excels in delineating enough singular character nuances to help the audience keep the roles straight.

One of the joys of reading Austen entails appreciating the sly twinkle in her eye used when she describes the foibles and hypocrisies of the aristocracy. While at times that “twinkle” may morph into a rather obvious “wink and nudge” during the production, the play is still able to successfully present the author’s brilliant satirical observations.

Mark Lund is responsible for the gorgeous pre-Victorian setting, depicting the Elliot’s home. Michael Nutting is the music director and Michael Matlock is the conductor of the four-piece orchestra providing the accompaniment for the seventeen new songs. One oddity: only Ilika is using a portable microphone, which made the sound seem a bit off-balance to this ear.

Jane Austen’s Persuasion runs through August 26 (it already has been extended!) at the Taproot Theatre Company’s Jewell Mainstage Theatre, 204 N 85th Street, in the heart of Greenwood. For tickets go to taproottheatre.org or call 206-781-9707.

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