SALT LAKE CITY — I’m a romantic. I try to save face and be cynical, but I’m a sucker for a good love story. Charlotte Brontë’s gothic romance Jane Eyre is one of the best. Back in 2000, composer Paul Gordon and writer/director John Caird brought one of the most popular novels written in the English language to Broadway, attempting to share all of Jane’s pained trials in the passage of a single evening.
I spent that evening with Cast B of Spotlight Productions’ current production of Jane Eyre in the Rose Wagner black box. I was skeptical at first, thinking a musical of this size and scope needed a larger proscenium, but the production fits well in the black box; there is even room for a live, six-member orchestra at stage left. The theatre also made it possible for the audience to have more of an intimate experience; Jane was close and real, instead of a distant dot on a huge proscenium stage.
As Jane, Brittany Bullen does some very nice work. Her speaking voice has a wonderful quality of warmth and familiarity to it; I felt Jane was alive and in the room with me. Bullen’s singing voice is lovely, and her performance is a solid foundation on which to build a show; I willingly followed her through the highs and lows of Jane’s story. Bullen is accompanied by a number of strong voices: Kirk Stapley’s enigmatic Mr. Rochester and Marie Bentley’s Blanche Ingram, just to name a couple. The vocal blending on stage was definitely a highlight for me, a difficult feat with such a large cast — such a large cast! — all on stage at once.
For the most part, director Brighton Sloan uses the ensemble and the space to her advantage, using bodies and voices as literal and figurative walls. There are, perhaps, one too many walks around the stage that equal a “turn about the grounds” — the convention works maybe once or twice at most — but Sloan does manage to get a lot of mileage out of a very bare set.
In my mind Jane is a very strong, rock-like character. She’s one to stand her ground, and when she does move it’s with thought and deliberation. The show has a lot of movement — literal traveling from here to there — and the constant movement got a little frenetic for me. I do think Sloan could have done more with individual scenes, mining the moments of decision and communication between characters. Letting them really talk. I didn’t feel any real emotional build supporting the growth of Jane and Rochester’s relationship; their connection was nearly there, but more in the sense of telling a story than in being honest.
The script itself has flaws that any production would find difficult to overcome; it takes its time with certain portions of Jane’s story while rushing others. For example, Jane’s meeting and friendship with her aunt’s pastor St. John (Nathan Krishnan) is incredibly rushed and tacked on to the end of the script. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, you may wonder: Does it have to be there at all? There are changes and switches throughout the script that feel quite sudden, as if we’re jump cutting from one point in time to another.
The show is full of beautiful music, but I must confess a problem I have with the score: there are a number of themes that repeat throughout the show — not just once or twice, but three and four and I think even five times — and those themes, though beautiful, get old fast because they don’t always match the scene’s content. It’s hard to deduce why certain themes are repeated in certain places, and I was distracted trying to figure them out.
Unfortunately the performance I saw had its share of techincal difficulty. Mics went in and out and were left on. While it was great to have the live orchestra, sound was definitely an issue. There weren’t enough mics to go around, and I lost some key information in the ensemble narration and singing because I simply couldn’t hear it. Maybe the live music, wonderful as it is, needs to be sacrificed so that the play can be heard and understood.
Despite the difficulties, Brittany Bullen’s performance is worth seeing — shall I say hearing? This show is an ambitious one to stage, and a good deal of work and effort have obviously gone into the production. Kudos to all involved; thank you for sharing.