Jane Eyre, Directed by John Caird, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon. Performed at La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, Cal.

Hundreds of film and theatre productions of the Bronte sisters’ writings have appeared since their novels were published. In fact, the first theatrical production of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre took to the stage in 1848, a year after the book’s publication, at London’s Victoria Theatre. The first film version starred Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, and in the last few years we’ve seen William Hurt as Rochester, and a British television production starring Samantha Morton and Ciaran Hinds. But Jane and Rochester singing? This is something new.

The musical of JANE EYRE has just premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California, and it recaptures the immortal story of the brave-hearted Jane Eyre and her love, the dashing, mysterious Edward Rochester–in the spirit of the musicals Les Miserables and Miss Saigon.

John Caird, a former Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Tony award-winning director of Les Miserables and Nicholas Nickleby, wrote the libretto and co-directs. The music and lyrics are by Paul Gordon, winner of eight ASCAP awards and composer of “Friends and Lovers” and “Next Time I Fall in Love.” Marla Schaffel (recently in Titanic) is Jane, and James Barbour (Beauty and the Beast) is Edward Rochester. Caird co-directs with Scott Schwartz.

The idea of Jane Eyre as a musical came to composer Gordon in a paperback kiosk at Boston’s Logan Airport in 1991. He read the quote on the back of Charlotte Bronte’s classic, “A great love story with Gothic overtones,” and decided to read the book on the flight. Soon he had written a few songs and sent a demo to Caird.

Caird says, “Jane Eyre is one of the great love stories of all time. When Paul Gordon brought his music to me and I reread the novel it was wonderful to discover how well the characters sing off the page. They have theatricality and introspection which are key ingredients for creating a musical. Bronte’s story has a sweep and emotion that carry you along. At the same time it’s a human scale story of the personal growth of two people.”

The first production of the musical was at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto in 1996. That version differs greatly from the current production. Caird explains that the La Jolla Playhouse production is “more emotional and less epic.” Three new songs have been added, along with a touch of humor by slightly changing the character of Rochester’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (played masterfully by Mary Stout). This production exaggerates her bustling, portly, slightly deaf, and very good-hearted characteristics to positive effect.

Barbour is especially effective as Rochester with his lanky strong physique and passionate voice, and Marla Schaffel seems just right for Jane–small and with an air of sincerity, earnestness, and strength in her manner and voice.

Bertha (Rochester’s mentally ill wife kept in the attic), played by Marguerite Macintyre, lends just the right amount of Gothic chill as she traipses about in white (her old wedding dress?), setting fire to Rochester’s bed and appearing ghoulishly above the stage in a window as Jane and Rochester finish a romantic duet. Finally, appearing dimly through a scrim or grid (used effectively throughout the play), Bertha is seen setting fire to Thornfield and falling dreamily to her death.

Three young actresses portraying the young Jane (Tiffany Skerritt); Helen Burns, Jane’s friend at Lowood (Megan Bell); and Adele, Mr. Rochester’s “ward” (Joelle Shapiro), are all convincing.

Sets and lighting are stark, haunting, or warm, as needed, and enhance the atmosphere at every turn, evoking the boarding school, the windows of Thornfield, the woods, the church. The music and lyrics carry the story along effectively and never seem contrived. Particularly memorable are “Secrets of the House,” “Painting Her Portrait,” and “Oh Sister.”

A timeless story, given new life and music, Jane Eyre is once again, as the last song goes, “Brave Enough for Love.” And perhaps if this show travels to Broadway as is planned (and as three of La Jolla Playhouse’s musicals have), it will thrill long-time lovers of Jane Eyre and introduce this tale of one woman’s journey to love and to herself to a whole new generation.

Karen Kenyon