By Sarah Carlson, Arts Editor
The hypocrisy of the social class system and suffocating moral restraints abundant during Queen Victoria’s reign form the backdrop of “Jane Eyre: The Musical,” a representation of Charlotte Brontë’s most popular novel, first brought to the Broadway stage in 2000.
Sweeping, and at times unnerving, musical numbers bring Jane’s story to life in this engaging production, now produced by the ACU Theatre Department for its Winter Dinner Theatre. The Fulks Theatre sets an intimate tone for the story of Jane, an orphan who grows to be a governess. Her strong opinions and faith set her apart from most of her contemporaries, except for Edward Rochester, the master of Thornfield Hall, where she teaches his ward, Adele.
Brontë’s story of Jane is in many ways autobiographical, from her unhappy times away at school, losing sisters to tuberculosis and spending time both as a teacher and a governess. The isolation of the English moors, a backdrop for Brontë as well as Jane, is an undercurrent of her work, as is the Gothic genre of horror, seen through the mystery of Thornfield, ghosts and gypsies.
Stuffing more than 400 pages of Victorian literature into a two and a half hour musical is a daunting task, but the creative team of John Caird and Paul Gordon, who were behind the 2000 production, manage to maintain the ultimate themes of forgiveness, emotional suffering and unconditional love of “Jane Eyre.”
The musical begins with an adult Jane narrating scenes of her early life, looking over her younger, more stubborn self and reflecting on her hardships and lessons learned. The adult Jane progresses the story, and the transition from past to present is excellent.
Julie Miller, senior theatre major from Winter Garden, Fla., as Jane, and Ben Jeffrey, senior theatre major from Kansas City, Mo., as Rochester, both deliver commanding and impressive performances with unbelievable voices. Their characters transition through a variety of complex emotions throughout the novel and play, and Miller and Jeffrey convey these with pitch-perfect precision. Though, despite being the title character, Jane’s show is stolen away by her very own Mr. Rochester.
Jeffrey steals most scenes he’s in, giving the strongest performance and having the strongest voice. Miller is still amazing as the reserved Jane but during their powerful duets, I found my eyes following Jeffrey.
The delightful Lauren Allred, senior theatre major from Abilene, plays Mrs. Fairfax, the bubbling and slightly deaf housekeeper at Thornfield, and I only wish Allred had received more leading roles during her time at ACU. Emily Savage, junior theatre major from North Richland Hills, delivers an engaging performance as the young Jane alongside Jane’s childhood friend Helen Burns, portrayed by Jenavene Hester, freshman theatre major from Abilene. Hester also plays Adele, Rochester’s French Ward, and brings energy to the stage and her scenes, tricking the viewer into thinking she really is a young French girl.
The ensemble is impressive, with each member serving as narrators and almost as props themselves, moving backdrops throughout the play. Victorian-aged chorus members progress the story and transition various scenes, helping set the restrained tone of the time period, although some of the members looked more bored than restrained.
Although Miller and Jeffrey carry most scenes on stage, the production could not have been as accomplished without each member of the ensemble and crew. This demonstrates the skill of all majors and staff involved, especially the stage manager Amy Simpson, junior theatre major from Denver, who has more than 170 cues to call.
Every person and object on stage is used and used well, everyone contributing and using an apparently simple set to ingeniously convey the impression of various locations. Members of the ensemble rotate a steel staircase on stage while the characters stand on it, continuing their dialogue as if they were moving throughout Thornfield.
Great attention to detail was given during the preparation of this production, from the construction of countless Victorian-age costumes to making sure a blanket used in the desolate orphanage would scatter dust when shaken by a resident.
This endearing romance and ambitious production of “Jane Eyre: The Musical” is one of the more sweeping and impressive non-Homecoming musicals in recent years, and one of the best Theatre Department productions I’ve seen over the past four years.
In our Feb. 10 edition, in the story “Brontë’s brooding moors brought to stage in musical ‘Jane Eyre,'” actress Julie Miller was incorrectly identified. The Optimist apologizes for this oversight.