This musical version of "Jane Eyre" has a lot in common with the heroine of the Charlotte Bronte novel on which it is based. Both are plain, apparently unpromising creatures who overcome formidable obstacles and battle through to an unlikely success. The show is the work of composer Paul Gordon and book writer John Caird. As co-director of "Les Miserables" and of a brilliant staging of "Nicholas Nickleby," Caird clearly has a way with 19th century novels. But while the books that spawned those two triumphs are great, sprawling epics that almost demand to be staged, "Jane Eyre" poses fierce challenges for a musical adaptation. Bronte's tale of a unglamorous Victorian orphan is enigmatic, strange and utterly literary. It hovers somewhere between downbeat realism and Gothic horror. Jane herself is defiantly ordinary, a woman without beauty, money or connections. But when she arrives at Thornfield Hall, she is drawn into a lurid story involving her moody, mysterious employer Edward Rochester and the original mad woman in the attic. For most of its length, though, the book is all atmosphere and very little incident. Making a musical of a story that depends so much on hidden desires and dark undertones seems like a bad idea. And, for quite a while, "Jane Eyre" seems doomed to noble failure. For the first three-quarters of the first act, the gloom and drudgery of Jane's life makes for a worthy but rather uninviting spectacle. Even in the first big number, "Forgiveness", a strikingly beautiful melody is dragged down by stodgy preaching of the lyrics: "When they bruise you with words/ When they make you feel small/ When it's hardest to bear/ You must do nothing at all."
Yet, from the moment James Barbour's Rochester bursts onto the stage, the show, like the heroine, begins to blossom. It's not just that Barbour has a magnetic presence and a voice that fuses raw power with rich expression. For with Barbour to play against, Marla Schaffel's Jane really hits her stride and never looks back. Schaffel labors under the unusual burden of being too beautiful for the part of plain Jane. She also affects an English accent so grand that it makes the Queen sound like she's from Canarsie. But once she's into the heart of the story - Jane's love for Rochester - her stunning voice is matched by the subtle eloquence of her silences. Having done all the hard and sometimes dreary work of setting up the story, Caird's book begins to move with the kind of pace and punch that you would expect from "Les Miz" and "Nicholas Nickleby."
And though the lyrics often remain earnest and awkward, Gordon reels off a succession of lovely tunes, with the ravishing "Sirens" and the gorgeous "In the Light of the Virgin Morning" merely the highlights of a richly textured and superbly performed score. As time goes on, too, the decision not to go for a lavish staging pays increasing dividends. With only the faintest touch of choreography and no big production numbers, "Jane Eyre" runs the risk of being as severe as its heroine. But the stark, precise direction by Caird and Scott Schwartz moves in hypnotic counterpoint with the dreamlike projections that flit across John Napier's sets. The sheer technical fluidity of the staging is at times awesome. And so we get a perfect enactment of the Victorian virtues. Patience is rewarded. The endurance of some suffering leads to unexpected bliss.
Romance and melodrama are back in the Broadway musical. They formally made that return yesterday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. After a parade of Cats in Hats, amateur male strippers, semi-operatic Egyptians and battling lions, we have a 19th-century love story set to music - "Jane Eyre."
And, what may be just as important to many theatergoers, as the classic lovers we have two legitimate, splendidly acted and robustly sung performances by a tremulous, yet bright-eyed, firm-jawed Maria Schaffel and a craggily, nobly, ruined James Barbour.
This subtle but somber musicalization by John Caird and Paul Gordon of Charlotte Bronte's Victorian romance novel with its unlikely happyish ending is the first full-fledged new love story Broadway has seen since . . . well, when? Stephen Sondheim's odd-edged "Passion" perhaps?
It is a great story - something Hollywood can vouch for with at least four movie versions - and John Caird, a past master of literary adaptation with both "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Miserables" to his credit, has done a splendid job on the new musical's book.
This strange haunting tale of an abandoned orphan who becomes a governess in a grand but mysterious house and falls in love with its master, a man with a doom-drenched past and sardonic temperament, reveals Gothic cobwebs as well as Gothic passions.
Cobwebs or not, attention must be paid, as Bronte spins out her yarn with scenes of chilly childhood, gloomy rooms, screams in the night, parties, something horrible in the attic, thunderstorms, dramatic disclosures, a deathbed confession, even a tragic conflagration. Yes, attention must be paid.
That is however just the Bronte/Caird story - and Caird has done a superlative job in trimming and shaping it for the stage - how about the music intended to flesh it out?
Not such good news. Paul Gordon's score seems largely conceived in a moody, Stephen Sondheimish mode, perhaps most specifically the Sondheim of "Sweeney Todd."
Of all the available Sondheims to follow, this is the most dangerous path for anyone but Sondheim - the differences between seriousness and murk, between genius and sludge are tough areas to negotiate.
And the problem with Gordon's music is that while it is perfectly admirable as dramatic accompaniment it proves characterless and unarresting when it has to carry pure emotional freight - even though it sounds rather more convincing after a few hearings on the already issued CD.
Nor are Gordon's lyrics (he was helped here with unspecified additions by Caird) particularly apt, bright or appealing, too often having a dull prosaic clunk to them.
Yet Caird's stagecraft and pure sense of the theater remains irresistible, and the entire production, directed by Caird, together now with Scott Schwartz, seems tightened up, a marked improvement on the pre-Broadway version, also with Schaffel as Jane, I saw in Toronto just four years ago.
John Napier, a Caird colleague from "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Miz," has gone to town and back with his settings, using three turntables (one above the stage), with computerized projections to create a whole world of Bronte imaginings.
Backed up by style-perfect costumes by Andreane Neofitou (who, like Napier, has been with the production from the beginning) and virtuoso lighting from Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, the evening has about it something of the rarefied yet convincing air of BBC Masterpiece Theater or a Merchant-Ivory movie.
As, despite its almost sung-through score, the emotional and theatrical impression of this "Jane Eyre" is almost as much a play with music as the pop opera which it actually is, the performances, especially as acting, are of unusual importance.
Luckily for the show, they are virtually faultless. Schaffel has deepened her virginal yet spirited Jane, full of good nature and common sense, becoming the perfect Bronte heroine.
Barbour, tall, brusque, with arrogance shielding his troubled but good heart, is equally a Rochester to conjure with.
And all the other creatures of the novel, good and bad, are memorably captured, particularly Mary Stout's motherly Mrs. Fairfax, the Dickensian dimensions of Bruce Dow as the butler, George, and the waiflike Lisa Musser as the young Jane.
This is not your common or garden-or tourist-party musical, and "Jane Eyre" may have difficulty in establishing itself on a Broadway usually bent more on circuses than bread. But as a piece of musical theater, it offers matchless style and true excitement.
In ''Jane Eyre,'' Charlotte Bronte unleashed a full and independent female spirit on the repressive Victorian landscape. Her heroine is plain looking and honest, spiny and kind, pious and passionate, and she overcomes the poor orphanhood of her upbringing and the prevailing cruelties of a caste-bound society to achieve a home, a husband, a family, a fortune and spiritual peace.
In the end, she has it all, as the Victorians might have perceived it, and the novel, published in 1847, has endured as a kind of feminist ur-text, richly analyzed, sociologically and psychologically, for its fierce assertion of womanliness. Among other things, Bertha, the novel's famously libidinous shadow character, has become perhaps literature's most famous symbol of closeted desire, the proverbial madwoman in the attic. The novel is also, of course, a magnificent melodrama, a florid Gothic romance set in dank chambers, posh drawing rooms and efflorescent gardens, a tale of love lost and regained, tragedy mourned and triumphed over, a godly sense of retribution and reward over all.
With such an opulence of imagery and emotion to work with, so much history and psychodrama to forage in, it is no surprise that the novel has attracted adapters for the screen and stage. But even with a dignified, assured performance by Marla Schaffel in the title role, the gloomy and mundane musical version of ''Jane Eyre'' that opened yesterday on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theater captures few of the richly available nuances.
What stands out in this production is the sense of scene-by-scene problem solving, a connect-the-dots approach to narrative that is particularly disappointing given the pedigree of the show's creators. John Caird, who wrote the earnestly literate book and was co-director of the show with Scott Schwartz, and the set designer, John Napier, are, after all, largely responsible for ''Les Miserables'' (with Mr. Caird as co-director with Trevor Nunn), the most brilliantly successful melding ever of theatrical and literary sweep.
But from the moment that Ms. Schaffel emerges from darkness to open the show with a nod to Bronte's polite first person -- ''My story begins, gentle audience, a long age ago'' -- the storytelling is fitful and hurried, a pace that accommodates a soundtrack but rarely pauses long enough for an actual song.
Onstage, Ms. Schaffel watches her childhood unfold with dispatch. Young Jane (Lisa Musser) is tormented by her mean-spirited aunt and vicious cousin. She's tormented by a vitriolic schoolmaster. Her one friend succumbs to illness. Eight years pass, and Jane arrives at Thornfield mansion to serve as a governess for the ward of the mysterious Edward Rochester. Thirty minutes into the show, Jane, walking in the Thornfield woods, and Rochester (James Barbour), who has tumbled from his horse, have begun the eventful, push-pull courtship that commandeers the rest of the evening.
To be sure, ''Jane Eyre,'' in gestation since 1995, has evolved into a very handsome, if very dark, production. Aided by Tony-worthy lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Mr. Napier has given the show a techno-sleek beauty, employing a series of both fixed and mobile scrims onto which scenic slides are projected. The lights are mounted on a huge carousel that can also handle enormous hanging props like chandeliers and paintings and windows, swinging them into place in midair, Magritte-like.
Onstage a turntable revolves, bringing with it a steady parade of period furniture and topiary. So despite the breakneck narrative pace, the physical energy in the production is largely provided by props and light; remarkably, there's so little dancing -- just one quickly aborted party minuet -- that no choreographer gets a credit.
The tableaus are often striking, part museum, part cyberspace; but the futuristic fizz in the atmosphere seems awfully distant from the Victorian tale unfolding within it, and the overall inventiveness isn't entirely immune to dull ideas. In the Act I finale, Jane and Rochester, in different rooms, sing a bedtime duet, each confessing the anguish of their undeclared love. It is Bertha (Marguerite MacIntyre), the still-secret wife with the unsubtle arsonist's compulsion, who keeps them apart, but when she suddenly appears, spectrally lighted, above and between them in the attic, the image is so predictable as to be sophomoric.
Still the design and lighting here are far from tepid, which is one word to apply to the score by Paul Gordon, whose work seems to be straight from the Broadway schmaltz kit of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schonberg. Mr. Gordon has written a lot of music for the show -- much of the dialogue is delivered in semi-recitative -- but the songs are few. Instead we are given an undertow of melodic snippets, mostly of the brief arpeggio variety, climbing and descending stairs, resplendent with soapy minor-key harmonics, vaguely familiar and repeating themselves with abandon. At least their prettily orchestrated manipulations seem to work on the audience, and they are very well sung.
The dark-haired Ms. Schaffel, who is much prettier than Jane is supposed to be, handles a huge role with remarkable aplomb. She has a strong, warm voice that is a central component of her winning performance, which is always cognizant of the kindness and humility that supports a heroic carriage. In a supporting role, Mary Stout, as Mrs. Fairfax, the deaf and distracted housekeeper at Thornfield, provides a welcome lightheartedness, both as a character and as a warbly, worrywart singer, and Elizabeth DeGrazia, as Blanche Ingram, the spoiled woman with her sights set on being mistress of Thornfield, renders her paean to Rochester's riches, ''The Finer Things,'' in a lovely soprano.
Mr. Barbour has a pleasing baritone, and he shows off both vocal power and vocal wit, but as the swaggery Rochester, whose anger masks his tormented soul, he seems like a visitor from another century. With the mussed and moppy hairdo of a rock singer, a softness of profile and the slightly hunched posture of a teenage jock, he blusters with the kind of arrogance that is manufactured out of uncertainty, a manner reminiscent of a young John Travolta.
It's a disconcerting performance that, among other things, defies a chemical connection with Ms. Schaffel's Jane. That they privately lust for each other has to be taken on faith, and when they finally get together, the reunion sends off no sparks, just dispassionate relief.
In part, this, too, seems to be a function of the show's perfunctory consideration of the lushness of the novel. The overall gallop through Bronte's significant plot has the teasing quality of a movie trailer. We barely see Bertha when she sneaks down from the attic to set Rochester's bed aflame. Mr. Gordon's most inventive song, ''The Gypsy,'' a wicked ditty that accompanies Bronte's cleverest ruse, the fortuneteller used by Rochester to turn off Blanche's affections, is all too brief because the scene is a blip.
You can see why speed is essential; the show runs three hours even with its accelerator to the floor. But it's a failing that the directors have used the Bronte story for mere stage directions. The result is that a great adult fable has been attenuated to the thinness of a children's story.
"Jane Eyre's" long journey to Broadway is a trek worthy of the musical's indomitable heroine herself. Just as Miss Eyre wandered the bleak countryside after her heedless flight from Thornfield and its baleful secrets, so has the Paul Gordon-John Caird tuner traveled a thorny five-year path to Broadway, beginning with productions in Wichita and Toronto, followed by a popular stand in the warmer clime of La Jolla two seasons ago. An expected arrival in New York last season was delayed when "Jane" found the doors of all appropriate theaters locked against her. Cruel fate!
The happy news is that she has at last arrived at the Brooks Atkinson; the less happy news is that she may need all the grit and tenacity she can muster to hang on. Aside from an apparently dauntless spirit, the musical has a few more things in common with its heroine. It's worthy, decorous, respectable and handsomely, if unobtrusively, dressed. It, too, is romantic without succumbing to sentimentality.
But unlike its literary progenitor, the musical is a bit soporific. What's missing is the fiercely beating heart beneath the black muslin, the ardent spirit that has entranced millions of readers in the century and a half since Charlotte Bronte's novel was published.
In Caird's book and Caird and Gordon's lyrics -- and Marla Schaffel's stalwart but un-captivating performance -- the musical's heroine remains a remote, pallid figure, despite much impassioned vocalizing.
In her sensible black dress, she is often in danger of disappearing into the swirling shadows of John Napier's impressionistic set designs.
Victorian novels, those "loose, baggy monsters," as Henry James put it, are not easily boiled down into easily digestible theatrical treats. Caird has some experience turning the trick: Along with Trevor Nunn, he edited Charles Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby" and Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" into stageworthy vehicles. Some of the techniques used in those productions are applied to Bronte's masterpiece, but the result is less lively.
The difficulty stems from the source material itself: While the appeal of the Dickens and Hugo books resides in their larger-than-life characters and relentless plotting, the allure of Bronte's novel is a more delicate thing; it's a matter of sensibility. "Jane Eyre" draws the reader directly into the bruised heart of its embattled heroine -- psychological immediacy, not narrative potency, is the key to its appeal, and that's not easily translated into dramatic terms.
Caird and Gordon, along with co-director Scott Schwartz, do a creditable job of trying. To retain the personal perspective, they have Jane narrate her tale to us, addressing us somewhat hokily as "gentle audience."
Most of the novel's unforgettable Gothic incidents are here: the orphaned Jane's cruel treatment at the hands of her aunt and her spoiled, sadistic cousin; further humiliation at the Lowood school, where she is befriended by the angelic Helen Burns, who then departs -- lickety-split -- to join her immortal brethren; and, of course, Jane's great, doomed romance with her employer Edward Fairfax Rochester (James Barbour), dark of brow and gloomy of spirit, but sexy as hell.
The production moves with a shimmering fluidity in Napier's inventive design conception, which dispenses (at great expense) with most physical scenery and conjures the settings of Jane's journey through projections and eloquently dappled lighting effects, which are wondrously engineered by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. It's an ingenious attempt to re-create the novel's intimacy in visual terms; the story rises before us as a jumble of Jane's liquid memories, easily scattered and rearranged.
But such stagecraft cannot, in the end, supply a depth of focus lacking in the material itself. On her placid surface, the book's Jane is a self-effacing, sober young woman, but she whispers in our ear the excitements of a heart and mind unwilling to be bound by society's rules.
Onstage, we see only the correct young woman with her hands forever folded stiffly before her; access to her emotional turbulence and fiery spirit comes only in flashes, and even these are transmitted in standard musical and dramatic terms. (The feints toward proto-feminism are particularly perfunctory.)
Gordon's music, perhaps the show's best chance at supplying the emotional texture needed to bind together its episodic plot, is for the most part as sober, dependable and unexciting as Jane herself.
Although it's not through-sung, the score might as well be: The moodily undulating vocal lines only rarely break out into sharply defined melodies, and these come in familiar varieties (including the requisite jauntier comic numbers, for the dotty housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax, played with crowd-pleasing plumpness by the aptly named Mary Stout). If Gordon could lose the reams of earnest wallpaper music that bind together his moments of inspiration, the real promise -- and real pleasure -- in his score would be more readily apparent.
Caird's dialogue is on the whole less melodramatic than his and/or Gordon's lyrics ("Damn the passion, damn the skies/Damn the light that's in her eyes," sings the riled Mr. R), but "Jane Eyre" without the ruminating intelligence of Bronte is essentially a melodrama, and the sobriety of this production drains the life out of even the more appealingly lurid elements. (Of the Broadway season's three new musicals, this is the only one that isn't remotely vulgar -- and guess what? It could use a little vulgarity.)
One impassioned duet for Jane and Mr. Rochester sounds much like the next, with "Secret Soul" being the standard-setter. Barbour and Schaffel are both strong singers who meet the challenges of their lengthy singing roles with energy and distinction. But sparks do not fly here -- not that they'd be east to to pick out in the eternal gloaming.
Schaffel seems a bit constricted by her role. She's too beautiful to be singing a mournful tune about her homeliness, for one thing, and is allowed few chances to drop the character's veneer of propriety and let loose; Jane's reaction to the sudden breaking off of her marriage ceremony seems strangely placid, for example -- even if it's strictly in keeping with the description in the novel.
Jane keeps stepping out of the story to narrate it, and seems always to be a step removed from its emotional convolutions.
Fans of the book may not notice: Bronte's novel strikes such deep chords in its admirers that they'll supply their own emotional connections. The story affirms the comforting, spiritually beautiful idea that souls destined to be together will eventually be united, even across a chasm of circumstance and social strictures.
I doubt it's a coincidence, by the way, that all of the show's six producers are women. Women will be its primary audience, and many a husband and boyfriend will be squirming through its nearly three hours, utterly mystified. It's "The Full Monty" for die-hard romantics.