Broadway spends millions of dollars on the creation of a single new musical that cycles through endless workshops, out-of-town tryouts and massive publicity campaigns. And then, with not a hint of hype, and a budget probably equal to the cost of five Broadway costumes, along comes Lifeline Theatre (the modest, widely admired company that for 33 seasons has devoted itself to literary adaptations and new work), with the world premiere of “Northanger Abbey.”
When: Through Aug.13
Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
A sparkling jewel of a musical, inspired by the Jane Austen novel of the same name, it is driven by a ravishing score full of beautiful melodies and the most sophisticated lyrics (the work of George Howe); a meticulously structured book (by Robert Kauzlaric); an ideally talented and notably diverse cast under the flawless direction of Elise Kauzlaric; and superb musicians led by music director Ellen K. Morris. Marked by an abundance of intelligence, emotion, wit and style, it is perfection — a glorious look at the power of art and the complexity of love, at the tension between fantasy and reality, and at the painful transition from innocence to experience.
“Northanger Abbey” is Austen’s earliest novel, and less widely known than “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility,” but it deals with her abiding obsessions — the search for love and a proper mate, and the pressures and constrictions of social class in 18th century England. It also winningly explores the role novels played in people’s lives at a time when the form itself was taking shape. And it suggests the powerful (even subversive) effect such storytelling had on the imaginations of young women who were curious and hungry for romance and adventure, but had little access to genuine experience.
To be sure, Catherine Morland (a star turn by Stephanie Stockstill, an actress whose luminous charm and grace is complemented by a lovely soprano), lives vicariously through novels, and is particularly obsessed with the popular gothic fiction of the time. One of 10 siblings in a modest family, it is her entry into “society,” by way of Mrs. Allen (Jenifer Tyler, very funny as a starchy, elderly mentor), provides her with a different sort of awakening. On a first-time trip from the countryside to the social whirl of Bath, she bonds with the flirty, impulsive, superficially worldly Isabella Thorpe (Lydia Hiller, ideal as the material girl), who seems to be headed for marriage with Catherine’s beloved brother, James (Chris Ballou, who deftly suggest a fellow who wears his heart on his sleeve). Catherine also meets the dashing, art-loving Henry Tilney (Javier Ferreira), to whom she is instantly attracted, and with whom she shares her passion for novels. Tilney’s family home also just happens to be Northanger Abbey, a gothic convent that is the stuff of her dreams.
Of course a great deal must happen before the couple is united, and it involves the efforts of the smug, laughably self-satisfied John Thorpe (a wonderfully comic turn by Andres Enriquez) to woo Catherine, as well as the complex dynamics of the Tilney family, which includes Henry’s lonely, lovelorn sister, Eleanor (a poignant turn by Shelby Lynn Bias); her other exceptionally polished but nasty brother, Frederick (the handsome, authoritative Denzel Tsopnang), and the siblings’ tyrannical father, General Tilney (the impeccable Peter Greenberg, who can capture a character in the delivery of a single line).
Composer-lyricist Howe has spent most of his career writing children’s musicals, but “Northanger Abbey” showcases a lyricist with the breadth and depth of Stephen Sondheim, a rapturous way with melody, and a gift for penning songs that ideally match the characters who sing them. Each of the show’s nearly 20 songs is a jewel — from the playful “Horrid Little Novel” for Catherine and Isabella, to the gorgeous, soul-bonding “Profoundly Human” sung by Catherine and Henry, to the achingly lovely “The Symmetry of Flowers,” for Eleanor and Catherine. And Catherine’s music-driven carriage rides with each of her suitors (tellingly staged by Kauzlaric) are priceless.
With theaters nationwide on a perpetual hunt for new musicals, “Northanger Abbey” should enjoy a rich extended life. Producers would be well-advised to come to Lifeline to see exactly how the show should be done.