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Buy 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte.


Photograph by David Allen

Work Detail: The young Jane Eyre (Jennifer Brissman) takes orders from Miss Scatcherd (Allison Bloomfield) and Mr. Brocklehurst (Lee Strawn).

To Eyre Is Human

TheatreWorks scores English lit classic 'Jane Eyre' to ballad-pop music

By Traci Vogel

WHEN A PRODUCTION has its own melodramatic origin myth, you can take it as a sign of things to come. According to TheatreWorks' program guide, the musical Jane Eyre was birthed in an airport in the early '90s. Paul Gordon, Broadway lyricist, had purchased several classics in search of material. As soon as he started reading Jane Eyre, he was hooked. "By page 10, I was weeping," the guide quotes Gordon. "I could barely restrain myself from writing music then and there." Evidently, there is something about the story of a plucky but maltreated orphan and love between social classes that sends the writers of modern musicals into earthquakes of ecstasy. Faced with this unplumbed gold mine, Gordon called John Caird, the co-adapter of Les Misérables, and they spent the next seven years writing.

The result of these efforts is now onstage at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, and Jane Eyre does indeed provide, as Gordon had sensed, stagy material for a Gothic Andrew Lloyd Webberesque spectacular. In case you don't remember from your college required reading: Jane spends her miserable orphan childhood installed in an attic in her cruel aunt's mansion, tormented by her cousin but unable to quench her James Dean spirit enough to conform. Sent to a charity boarding school, she befriends a doomed young martyr who teaches her that forgiveness can be the best revenge. Jane sets her sights on leaving the school and is eventually installed as governess at Thornfield Mansion, an enormous gloomy country mansion owned by one ever-absent Edward Rochester. Her ward, Adele, is a charming quirky girl whose feistiness endears her to Jane.

But Jane is lonely, too, and when she meets a mysterious stranger on horseback while strolling the grounds she is charmed by his playful wit and brooding brow. It turns out, of course, that the stranger is Mr. Rochester, and that he was equally charmed, and the sexual tension between the two causes a few thunderstorms at Thornfield. And then, of course, there's that mysterious laugh that echoes Thornfield's hallways ...

If you're a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber, you're familiar with the songwriting that graces Jane Eyre: Take a theme, such as "forgiveness," and set it to a soaring minor fifth. Intersperse with a funny character song buoyed by a stride beat. Add love ballad in the style of mid-'80s pop. Wrap up with big all-cast ending. Unfortunately, Jane Eyre takes all the formula from Webber and none of the soul. Although the program guide also emphasizes the care Gordon and Caird took in ensuring that no language inappropriate to the era was used, they seem to have overlooked the equally jarring incongruity of setting Brontë's story to ballad-pop music. Watching Rochester (played by a Sean Connery-accented and sometimes incomprehensible David Hess) croon, "Childish slender creature, shower my breast with your apricot smell" to Jane (the clear-voiced Margaret Nichols) to a tune reminiscent of "Islands in the Stream" turns out to be an almost hysterical experience for an ex-English major.

Some appreciate the overwrought balladeering of Webberesque modern musicals, however, and judged by these standards, Jane Eyre might be well packaged for the sentimental soul. As for this ex-English major, by the second half, I was weeping.

Jane Eyre, a TheatreWorks Production, plays Tuesdays (except April 29) at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm (with 2pm shows April 26 and May 3) and Sundays at 2pm (with 7pm shows April 13 and 27) at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$43. (650.903.6000)

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From the April 17-23, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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