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Theater Review: "Sense And Sensibility"

(from left) Emily Berman as Lucy Steele, Sharon Rietkerk as Elinor
Photo credit:
Liz Lauren, courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

They’re cute, they’re witty, they can sing and they’re looking for love. What could be a more appealing subject for a musical?

I’m talking about Jane Austen’s famous Dashwood sisters – Marianne (Megan McGinnisas) and Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) – whose beloved amatory adventures have been given a musical treatment by Paul Gordon.

Barbara Gaines directs “Sense and Sensibility,” presented in association with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where it premiered two years ago. It plays here through Aug. 14 on The Old Globe’s Shiley stage.

The old dictum “follow the money” is usually applied to politics, but it applies here as well.

When the head of the Dashwood household dies, the estate is left to eldest son John (David Schlumpf), along with a request that he take care of his younger sisters.

But John’s dominating and greedy wife Fanny (Jill Van Velzer) convinces John to plunge the girls into penury with a pittance of a bequest.

“I know John has a heart; it’s just that no one can find it,” says Marianne (Megan McGinnis) as they move from relative luxury at Norland Park to much more modest surroundings at Barton Park, in Devonshire.

But never mind, eligible men can be found anywhere.

The play’s title refers to the sisters’ differing approaches to life. Marianne is the flighty romantic (sensibility); Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) the responsible, reasonable one (sense).

The joy of Austen’s story lies in her characters, and the suitors the girls find (or who find them) are three of the more endearing in the Austen repertoire. One is Willoughby (Peter Saide), tall, handsome, suave and (of course) a bit of a bounder. Marianne falls for him immediately.

Then there’s Edward Ferrars (Wayne Alan Wilcox) – as it happens, Fanny Dashwood’s brother, about as opposite his sister in temperament and outlook as possible.

Edward is quiet, unassuming and principled, but also tongue-tied much of the time. He and Elinor are attracted to each other, but he has a secret the disclosure of which will send Elinor into a tizzy.

Finally, there’s Colonel Brandon (Sean Allan Krill), elderly by the girls’ reckoning (neither of them is yet 20), who falls in love at first sight with Marianne – but she is of course too busy dreaming about Willoughby.

Besides, Brandon is (as he bemoans in the best song by far) on the “Wrong Side Of Five And Thirty.”

The question for 1792 (when this story is set) is whether the girls will marry, and more importantly (as mom would say) will they marry rich?

The plot plays out on a stage festooned with Kevin Depinet’s giant swooping Möbius strip of a decoration, impressive to see, though a bit modern-looking for the late 18th century.

Other design elements are first-rate as well: Susan E. Mickey’s handsome costumes, Donald Holder’s atmospheric lighting and Ray Nardelli’s sound design. Laura Bergquist leads the fine nine-member orchestra with good style.

Gordon’s songs are fine – with lyrics often better than the melodies – most sounding either like patter or short ditties. “Wrong Side Of Five And Thirty” and Edward’s ballad “Elinor” are two notable exceptions.

Gordon rightly concentrates his script on sisterhood rather than romance, and McGinnis and Rietkerk play up the real point (Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister) excellently (though of course the next line also applies).

And both Rietkerk and McGinnis have terrific voices.

It’s not difficult to see why Marianne is attracted to Saide’s Willoughby. How could you complain about a handsome guy who can recite poetry?

Wilcox’s Edward Frears, now that’s another kettle of fish. A genuinely decent guy, if a bit pathetic, you can’t help but feel for him.

And Krill’s Brandon amusingly speaks for all who are considered a little too old for (fill in the blank). And all of them have lovely voices.

Gordon also musicalized another Austen book– “Emma” – and with this effort, he begins to look like the go-to guy for Austen-inspired musicals.

Gaines – who wanted in on this project after seeing “Emma” – was right, and she directs with a sure hand.

The details

“Sense And Sensibility” plays through August 14, 2016 at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm.; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or theoldglobe.org