|PREJUDICE & PRIDE|
In addition to being one of the most popular clues on “Jeopardy,” Jane Austen’s 1813 novel “Pride & Prejudice” has undergone more adaptations – for film, television, stage and literature – than almost any novel in history. One of the newer ones, “Prejudice & Pride,” a gender-switched, country-music-filled tuner, now getting its New York debut at 59E59’s Theater A, does well enough by Austen that Jane is probably not rolling her in grave. Still, its passionate lead performances and decidedly strong score are the main reasons to make a visit.
First performed in Kansas City and then the Edinburgh Fringe (both primarily with this cast), the piece still has a “let’s put on a show” quality. It features a simple dive bar set by Sam Wright (who also plays the show’s lead, wrote the score and co-wrote the book with director Nicholas Collett), a three-man band (also including Wright) and a cast of 9 portraying over 15 characters – as well as constantly moving the furniture. Depending on your mood, the production can feel either amateurish or endearing.
Luckily, you don’t have to be all that familiar with the novel to follow the musical’s plot (and the many subplots), although you’ll probably be more delighted with some of the script’s specific references and the many gender switches if you know the book well.
Still, its most basic tenet -- about not judging a book by its cover -- comes through loud and clear as it charts how poor honkytonk singer Bennett Longborn (a very charismatic Wright) and uppity, suspicious heiress Darcy Fitzwilliams (the fine Bridget Casad) finally admit they are in love despite their superficial differences.
I believe the show, which runs a taut two hours, might even benefit from focusing a bit more on their journey, and eliminating some of the subplots. I did enjoy the fast-then-slow pairing of the eldest, super-shy Longborn brother Jake (an appealing PT Mahoney) with Darcy’s best friend, the wealthy yet kind Carly Bing (the lovely Stefanie Stevens). And Chris Owen is an absolute hoot as the youngest, dimwitted Longborn brother, Lyle, even when the character borders on caricature.
But a second-act sequence where Lyle not only gets romantically involved with Darcy’s seductive ex-friend Victoria “Wick” Hamm (Stevens, again beguiling), but naively becomes a participant in a January 6-like insurrection seems unnecessary. Moreover, such supporting characters as the man-hungry evangelist Wilhelmina Cole (a slightly over-the-top Franci Talamentz-Witte), who marries Bennett’s equally poor best friend Luke (a very good Chris Arnone), and the conniving Senator De Berg (an almost cartoonish Tim Ahlenius) could easily be excised.
In fact, less plot could mean more time for Wright’s tuneful, often infectious score, which shines brightest when his incredibly powerful voice is front and center, He’s equally adept with a love ballad such as “With My Own Two Eyes” as he is with a lament like “Eastward-Facing Road” or a crowd-rouser such as “Pour Another Finger (Of That Tennessee Rye)” and “Pretty Little Goldmine.”
Further, as a songwriter, Wright wisely offers equal opportunities to his castmates, from Luke’s mournful “Through the Glass” to Victoria’s delightful “Simple American Girl” to Darcy’s many numbers, including the haughty “I Don’t Need a Man” and the apologetic “Dear Bennett.”
The score is clearly a boon for theater-lovers who also enjoy country music. (As fun as it is, how many times do you want to sit through “Shucked.”?) For those folk, to quote the title of another of Wright’s songs, “Prejudice and Pride” feels “Heaven-Sent.”
By Brian Scott Lipton
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