Spirited musical premier of ‘Sensibility’ has bright future


DENVER | At first glance, “Sense and Sensibility” seems an odd inspiration for a full-fledged stage musical.

Jane Austen’s first published novel from 1811 is a sprawling work, a character-based epic that spans hundreds of pages. Written entirely in the form of letters between characters, the book is rooted in the social mores of the early 19th century. It tracks the romantic struggles of Marianne and Elinor Dashwood following the death of their father. As the sisters face the loss of their estate and money, they’re forced to seek love and fulfillment in a new meager home in the rural stretches of southwest England. The pace of the storytelling is measured, the dialogue is rooted in English conventions from 200 years ago.

It’s hardly the kind of source material that drives most stage adaptations nowadays. In the era of productions like “Shrek: The Musical” and “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” a show based on a book that many might know from a freshman literature class seems like it would be doomed from the start.

Happily, the Denver Center Theatre Company’s new musical interpretation of Austen’s first major work avoids such a cruel fate. The show commissioned as part of last year’s New Play Summit is vibrant, dynamic and original. That’s thanks in part to the consummate skill of the cast, actors with resumes packed with Broadway credits who have come to Denver for the world premiere of the show.

But the appeal of the show isn’t limited to its star power. The DCTC has made a powerful creative statement with “Sense and Sensibility,” and it comes through in every detail. The score by Neal Hampton gives intensity to the romantic plights of the Dashwood sisters. The lyrics and dialogue by Jeffrey Haddow give the characters an immediacy, even as they keep up a credible sense of 19th-century propriety. The choreography by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who also serves as director, gives the show a constant sense of movement and energy.

Combined, all these elements make the musical a stunning accomplishment on several levels. The show’s debut run in Denver is set to end on May 26, and judging by the careful attention to every detail, it could very well make its next appearance on a bigger stage in New York.

Considering the detail and complexity of the source material, all of these achievements are all the more impressive. Haddow stays true to the spirit and basic structure of Austen’s novel, even as he avoids staging a play that features characters reading letters. The show kicks off as the Dashwood sisters — Elinor (Stephanie Rothenberg) and Marianne (Mary Michael Patterson) — have just lost their father. Along with their widowed mother (Joanna Glushak), the sisters must leave their estate and move to a much smaller country cottage in the rural stretches of Devonshire.

It’s there the romantic conflicts come in full force. Elinor, the older sister, is haunted by her feelings for Edward Ferrars (Nick Verina), a well-to-do young man who’s already secretly engaged. Marianne, meanwhile, soon becomes enamored with John Willoughby (Jeremiah James), a dashing and charming “young rake” who fits into the younger sister’s romantic view of love. Marianne gives herself up to her idealistic visions of romantic love and Colonel Brandon, a much more dependable suitor, resigns himself to the fact that the younger Dashwood sister will opt for “sense” over “sensibility.”

These shifting relationships and affections are only part of the complex character network that make up Austen’s story. The show is faithful to Austen’s vision to an impressive extent — it’s part of the reason the show clocks in at a good three hours.

Still, despite some slow moments that come in establishing characters and ties, Haddow’s book manages to remain vibrant and dynamic across the two acts. That’s helped in large part, of course, by some truly inspired musical moments. A scene in Regent’s Park, for example, sees Edward singing along with statues of Shakespeare, Milton and Henry VIII. The song, “With Me Beside You” and the stunning costumes make for a truly spirited moment.

That brand of innovation isn’t rare in this show. The production stays true to all of Austen’s careful character studies and subtle themes, even as it adds plenty of verve for the stage. It’s a standout achievement in an era of stage shows based on TV programs and mainstream Hollywood fare. The DCTC shows that pop culture shouldn’t be the only source for new theater.

“Sense and Sensibility”

Runs until May 26 at the Stage Theatre at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St. in Denver.

Tickets start at $55.

Information: 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707