The name “Tom Lefroy” pops up only a few times in Jane Austen’s surviving letters, but he remains of interest to Janeites since he’s one of the very few love interests, however tentative, the author is known to have had. The prologue of the new musical Austen’s Pride, now running at the 5th Avenue Theatre, imagines that he broke her heart, ending their flirtation due to her limited financial resources, and leaving her so embittered that 16 years later, even though Austen’s first mature novel, Sense and Sensibility, is a hit and her publisher has requested a follow-up ASAP, she has to be cajoled into starting a new one.
Why, then, Austen had bothered to write S&S (arguably her most romantic romantic comedy) in the meantime is left unanswered, but this premise opens the door to Amanda Jacobs and Lindsay Warren-Baker’s skillful theatrical condensation of Pride and Prejudice with the author herself and her sister Cassandra deftly layered in. Before our eyes Austen (Laura Michelle Kelly) begins to reshape P&P from its first draft, titled First Impressions: Her characters react to her decisions, she consults them about what they should do next, sometimes keeping them under control and sometimes not as they all move together toward a happy ending—with her hero Darcy (Steven Good) overcoming his pride, her heroine Elizabeth (Olivia Hernandez) discarding her prejudice, and Austen herself, following their example, persuaded to be less cynical about love. Cassandra (glamorously rendered by Cayman Ilika) even jumps into the unfolding novel, taking on the character of Elizabeth’s pragmatic friend Charlotte.
Jacobs and Warren-Baker share credit for the book, lyrics, and music. In its chipperness and catchiness, their score most closely resembles, perhaps, the music of the Sherman brothers, songwriters for many mid-century Disney movie classics, including Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, with maybe a little Sondheim around the edges. Of the engaging cast, two particularly require mention: Compared to other P&P adaptations I’ve seen, Michele Ragusa takes the full measure of comedy inherent in the role of Elizabeth’s addled mother while largely avoiding caricature, and Sarah Rose Davis’ double casting as Elizabeth’s snobbish rival Caroline and warmly solicitous aunt Mrs. Gardiner show her impressively able to flip 180 degrees from bitchery to charm.
The one flaw in Austen’s Pride is, unfortunately, a major one: the shift in focus from that of the original novel—Elizabeth’s enlightenment as she gets over her negative first impressions of Darcy—to Austen’s own softening as a writer. Linking her work to her life, the musical presents Austen’s ability to steer P&P toward a conventional happy ending as an emotional breakthrough. It makes for a pleasant two hours, though the link isn’t entirely convincing. In Austen’s novels, weddings are the denouements but never the point; they’re more a formal storytelling convention, like the rhyme scheme of a sonnet. The heroine’s growth is the point. But what is particularly off-putting about this shift is that Austen’s irony and satirical bite are posited as wounds to be healed rather than what they actually were: the key to her peerless insight into human nature. In Seattle, Austen-based shows have long been surefire box office; no theater season goes by without one or two. But I suspect Austen fans are not going to be thrilled by seeing her sharp-tongued observance of the comic absurdities and harsh realities of the mating game—perhaps the main reason they love her—explained away as the result of teenage romantic rejection.
Times and prices vary. Ends October 27. 5th Avenue Theatre, downtown; 5thavenue.org