I am never surprised to see ever-increasing excellence in each new production from Houston’s Masquerade Theatre. That has been a “given” under the continuing leadership of founder/director, Phillip Duggins. But this month’s premiere production of the newly revised musical, “Jane Eyre” brought Masquerade to an even more stunning level of excellence. The original version of this show (which opened on Broadway in November of 2000, and closed the following year before the disasters of 9/11 sent the world into turmoil) had been previously produced at Masquerade several years ago. This new edition, from the original authors (music & lyrics – Paul Gordon, book by John Caird), is a masterpiece of lovely music, compelling story lines, and exquisite staging. It may very well be the finest production Masquerade has ever done, though I wish the printed program had credited the author of the novel that started it all, Charlotte Brontë.
The authors conceived a unique theatrical device in having the mature Jane Eyre (velvet-voiced Kristina Sullivan in the title role), standing aside on stage at the outset as she does a singing narration of the troubling events of her childhood. Those events play out with Mia Garachis playing the younger Jane, whose misfortunes include being orphaned by the deaths of both parents. Christine Zavakos and Luke Wrobel play Jane’s mother and father, and before their untimely demise, they duet divinely for “Fever on Your Brow.” Things do not go well for Jane in the home of her uncle and aunt, Mr. & Mrs. Reed (Michael Karl and the always fun-to-watch, Rebekah Dahl). Then it is on to more misfortune for Jane as she enters the charity school run with cruelty by Mr. Brocklehurst (Evan Tessier) and Miss Scatcherd (Libby Evans, who, by the way, designed the show’s elegant costumes). In the “Children of God” number, the young orphans in the cast sing sweetly and are joined by Dahl, Evans, and the resounding voice of Tessier with this song reminding one of the orphanage scenes in “Oliver.”
Jane finally finds a schoolmate she can trust in young Helen Burns (Lauren Selig). They duet with lilting sweetness for “Forgiveness,” and then reprise “Fever on Your Brow” before Helen becomes ill and dies after singing the heartbreakingly poignant, “I Seek My Maker.” Delicate orchestrations of the lovely score are ever-present (conductor, Richard Spitz) in this work that often seems like a well-crafted opera, and it was difficult for the audience to know when to break the magic spell with applause. That moment came when Jane finally comes into her own with full authority in the thrilling number, “Sweet Liberty,” and Miss Sullivan was rewarded with a much-deserved burst of applause that relieved the tension of the piece.
With its two tiers and high, curved arches, the elegant simplicity of the set design (Amanda McBee), transitioned well from scene to scene, and next presented us with the grand Thornfield Manor House of Mr. Rochester (Luther Chakurian). There, Jane is to be employed as governess to Mr. Rochester’s young ward, Adèle, brightly played by a beaming Marion Strauss. Jane’s joyful gratitude at finally having a peaceful and lovely place of her own is reflected in the spiritual atmosphere of her song, “This Little Room,” as well as in the cheerful song from household staff, “In the Light of the Virgin Morning.” And speaking of light, the tasteful lighting designs of David Gipson are an asset throughout the show. But the house had some dark mysteries as well, and they were spookily put forward as the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Allison Sumrall in a kindly portrayal), sings eerily of “The Upper Floor.” Chakurian beautifully projects the loneliness and isolation of Rochester with his riveting performance of the song, “As Good As You,” full of chilling heartbreak from a man feeling unworthy of Jane’s kindness and grace.
In Act II Rochester is courting the insufferably pompous Blanche Ingram, with Catherine Taylor giving a masterfully snide performance, paralleled by that of Miss Dahl in her second role of the evening as Lady Ingram. They revel in mocking Jane for her membership in the lower class. Taylor’s playful “The Finer Things” duet with Mr. Chakurian was great fun. His following duet of “The Pledge” with Miss Sullivan offered rich counterpoints and further evidence that she forms her musical phrases with the kind of radiance, vocal precision, and enunciation that one might associate with Julie Andrews.
Questions abound in Act II as the mysterious Mr. Mason arrives (Luke Wrobel returning in a second role), and we learn more about the real resident of that notorious Upper Floor. Chakurian, meanwhile, offers a fine falsetto while masquerading as a fortune-telling gypsy. Sumrall gets my tongue-twister award for managing the rapid-fire lyrics of, “Slip of a Girl.” Now a case might be made for some tightening up of the long second act with its several reprises. But the full-company finale of “Brave Enough For Love,” was a beautifully staged tableau that seemed to fulfill director Duggins’ goal as stated in the program: “…creating magical moments you will remember for a lifetime.” Mission accomplished!
Masquerade Theatre’s new season will include productions of “Chess,” “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Urinetown,” “Jekyll & Hyde,” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” For tickets and information call 713-861-7045 or visit the website at www.masqueradetheatre.com.