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Book Review: Jane Eyre: BH

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Jane Eyre

Toronto has become the third largest theatre venue in the world after London and New York, thanks to local theatre entrepreneurs Ed and Donald Mirvish of Mirvish Productions. Their most recent project, JANE EYRE, a musical version of the classic Brontë novel, opened in December 1996 for a limited 3-month run at Toronto's historic Royal Alexandra Theatre.

When I first heard that Jane Eyre was being produced for the stage, I couldn't imagine how this dark, dramatic tale could possibly translate into a musical. But, surprisingly, I really enjoyed it, and judging by the comments from the audience around me, I was not alone. Adapted and directed by Tony-award-winning, Canadian-born John Caird, who lives and does most of his work in Britain, with music and lyrics by American Paul Gordon, the production works very well. After all, comments Caird, 'Jane Eyre is one of the great love stories of all time. It is a story about personal growth. It is a great epic, and a sweeping emotional story that is intensely romantic, with elements of gothic and melodrama. For those reasons, the storytelling is immensely helped by the use of music.'

It was Gordon who first conceived the idea of adapting the novel to music, and after writing several songs, he asked cast members from Les Miserables to record them, while he continued to develop the work. After workshops in several cities, the project was brought to Toronto where it took months of work, collaboration, and fine tuning to bring it to opening night.

The musical follows the book fairly closely and opens with flashbacks of Jane's early life as a poor, unwanted, orphaned waif. The costumes are attractive and the staging by a creative team led by John Napier, who also designed the set of Les Miserables, is brilliantly stark and simple. A dark, multi-level gothic backdrop conveys just the right atmosphere of grim Victorian life, and the clever design makes it easy to depict different locations–Gateshead Hall, Lowood School, and Thornfield Hall–without too much scene changing, which makes for a smooth continuity throughout the show.

Outstanding among the supporting cast is Mrs. Fairfax, the Housekeeper, played by Mary Stout, a veteran of the U.S. regional theatre. From the moment she sings 'The Upper Floor' when Jane first suspects a mystery in the house, Mrs. Fairfax carries her scenes. A light diversion is Adele, Mr. Rochester's ward, charmingly played by Frannie Diggins.

Edward Rochester, Jane's mysterious employer, is played by Anthony Crivillo. Despite this American actor's impressive string of Broadway and Hollywood credits, I found him a bit disappointing in this role. Although he appears suitably dishevelled, the 20-year age difference between him and Jane was not obvious enough, nor did he effectively communicate Rochester's dark and brooding personality. Crivillo may have been trying to lighten the character, (after all, this is a musical play) but he was not nearly tormented enough for me. Nevertheless, he gives a credible performance and his magnificent singing voice is definitely an asset as he and Jane discover their emotional connection in songs such as 'Secret Soul' (Jane) and 'The Pledge' (Jane and Rochester).

Most praise must be reserved for American actress Marla Shaffel, who follows up her recent U.S. tour of Evita by tackling the part of Jane. She, too, doesn't play the role as quite the tragic figure she was in the original novel, but as a calm, strong survivor in adversity. When she is cast out again as she is about to marry Rochester, after the revelation of his tragic secret with the appearance of his convincingly mad wife, she attempts to make a new life with her usual stoicism.

In the last scenes, Jane returns to the ruins of Thornfield Hall and discovers the blind and crippled Rochester. Their love remains intact, and finally you can feel the emotional charge as this romantic love story reaches its conclusion, with a reprise of 'Second Self' by Jane and Rochester and a wonderful finale, 'Brave Enough for Love' with Jane, Rochester, and the ensemble.

The ensemble cast are wonderful and the music, with just the right mix of drama and uplifting melodies–although it won't produce any big hits–is pleasant and memorable enough to carry the show to success.

Following a successful run in Toronto, Jane Eyre will move to Broadway in October 1997.

Tess Bridgwater

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