SAN DIEGO — Feeling overwhelmed by this summer of tumult, when the news seems to go only from bad to worse? I have just the remedy: an English novelist who wrote delectable comedies of manners that haven’t gone out of style despite being more than 200 years old.
Yes, Jane Austen is the writer to soothe our jangled nervous systems. Her books, operating on the principle that the more delayed the romantic gratification the more delicious it will be, comfort their readers with the assurance that good old-fashioned English morals will prevail even as good old-fashioned English mores are satirized with a gently unrelenting hand.
A musical version by Paul Gordon of Austen’s early novel “Sense and Sensibility” is having its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe. Having seen Gordon’s “Jane Austen’s Emma — A Musical Romantic Comedy” at the Old Globe in 2011, I wasn’t expecting more from his “Sense and Sensibility” than a series of singing postcards of Devonshire and London. But Gordon’s latest crack at musicalizing Austen captivated me with its modest charm and wit.
Austen’s fictional worlds have proved remarkably malleable, lending themselves to a wide range of dramatic treatments, from fizzy rom-coms (“Clueless,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) to pop cultural infusions (“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) to the more traditional BBC fare.
But the author’s episodic storytelling is better suited to film and television than the stage. Too often in the theater, Austen seems miniaturized and commodified — “Pride and Prejudice” converted into the theatrical equivalent of a tourist shop tea cozy.
This production of “Sense and Sensibility,” directed by Barbara Gaines, succeeds within a narrow compass. More of chamber piece than a Broadway-scale offering, the musical is impressive less as independent work of musical theater than as an artfully efficient and occasionally highly clever adaptation.
The show, which had its world premiere last year at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, economizes Austen’s plot with a frugality that might seem unnecessarily severe. But the aggressive pruning keeps the work theatrically lithe and buoyant.
The story moves at a pleasant clip on a set by Kevin Depinet that makes use of only minimal furnishings and scenery. Unlike the 1995 Ang Lee film version that starred Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for her screenplay, this production doesn’t dazzle us with English countryside.
The action appears to take place indoors, in that magical circle of theatrical storytelling, even when set on a rainy knoll. The focus is entirely on the talkative characters, who are lustrously enveloped by Donald Holder’s lighting design, which creates stunning effects against a darkened backdrop.
The tale of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, two affectionate sisters of opposing temperaments who must learn to incorporate personality aspects of the other to realize their dreams of love, is hard to resist even if a touch schematic in places.
Sharon Rietkerk plays Elinor, the eldest and most sensible sister, who keeps the family’s financial and emotional budgets in check. Megan McGinnis portrays Marianne, the far more romantic middle child who values nothing so much as a passionate sensibility. (The sisters’ mother and youngest sibling have been jettisoned here to concentrate our attention on the main love plots.)
Romantic obstacles involving disparities of wealth and previous attachments create havoc for these marriageable young women, whose lives have taken a difficult turn after the death of their father.
Elinor’s relationship with Edward Ferrars (Wayne Alan Wilcox), the charmingly diffident brother of Elinor’s snooty sister-in-law, who has taken over the family estate the Dashwood girls’ half-brother has inherited, suffers a long and anxiety-inducing interruption. This allows time for Marianne’s entanglement with the ardent if irresponsible Mr. Willoughby (Peter Saide) as the wealthy, dour and unimpeachably good Col. Brandon (Sean Allan Krill) longingly looks on.
No matter the adaptation, I always seem to favor Elinor over Marianne, and that is the case here. Rietkerk’s dignified reserve makes a more lasting impression than McGinnis’ runaway ebullience, but that is perhaps what Austen intended. Both actresses convey, in song as well as speech, the distinctive qualities of their agreeable characters.
If Wilcox’s Edward and Krill’s Col. Brandon come off better than Saide’s Willoughby, it needs to said that we aren’t meant to hold Marianne’s libertine beau permanently in our affections. Brian Ray Norris as Lord Middleton, the sisters’ generous uncle who leases the cottage on his estate to them, and Paula Scrofano as his gossipy mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, provide delightful comic relief.
Gordon’s songs are never narratively idle. They advance the plot even when introducing a character or dwelling on a theme. Some of the numbers can seem dutifully expositional, but there’s less musical hackwork in “Sense and Sensibility” than there was in his “Emma.”
Col. Brandon’s “Wrong Side of Five and Thirty” is especially winning, humorously playing up the problem Marianne has with this in every way superior gentleman — his relatively advanced age. Also fine are Edward’s “Elinor” and Col. Brandon’s “Lydia,” love ballads that linger in the memory longer than any of the lilting tunes sung by the sisters.
This may seem odd, but these numbers assure us of the capacity of these male characters to love, thereby strengthening the hope of a happy ending for Elinor and Marianne. With so much discord and chaos in the world today, it’s a relief to return to Austen’s more orderly universe, where matters of personal happiness — all that makes life truly worth living — are treated with the importance of grave national affairs.
“Sense and Sensibility”
Where: Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 14
Tickets: Start at $39
Info: (619) 234-5623 or www.theoldglobe.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes