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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Musical Version of Jane Austen's "PERSUASION" at Taproot Theatre — A Review

Life rarely offers us second chances, but now you have one if you have not yet seen Taproot Theatre's production of Persuasion. In fact, this musical adaptation of Jane Austen's novel by the same name is about second chances, and much more. It is at Taproot's Jewell Mainstage Theatre, in Seattle, through August 26, 2017. Thanks to positive audience response, it has been extended with extra performance times. Don't miss the opportunity.

Cayman Ilika & Matthew Posner in Persuasion at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
Harold Taw wrote the book, and Chris Jeffries the music and lyrics. Together, they have given a new life to an old tale. It takes place during the Regency era in England, roughly from the late 18th century through the first two decades of the 19th century. Just as today, we see a society with its own "1%" versus "99%" imbalance. We step into the world of a titled English family desperately clinging to its phony, snobbish, aristocratic lifestyle, a family that refuses to quit spending lavishly or putting on airs, even though the money is basically gone. The protagonist, Anne Elliot (Cayman Ilika), is the only family member with common sense, genuine compassion, and humility. 
Matthew Posner, Sophia Franzella, Ryan Childers, Chelsea LeValley, Cayman Ilika & Randy Scholz in Persuasion at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Apparently doomed to spinsterhood, and with liberal views concerning women and the worth of those in the lower classes, she is almost an embarrassment to her father, Sir Walter Elliot (Nick DeSantis). Her mother died previously. One sister, Mary Musgrove (Kate Jaeger) is married. The other one, Elizabeth Elliot (Chelsea LeValley), is the father's favorite, looking for a rich husband who will indulge her as he has. 

Anne Elliot would have been married, had she not rejected the love of her life, a member of the British navy, after being persuaded to end the match based on their class differences. Her status-conscious godmother, Lady Russell (Caitlin Frances) did most of the persuading. At the beginning of the musical, we learn this lost love has returned, eight years after being jilted. Now, known as Captain Wentworth (Matthew Posner), he returns a hero of the Napoleonic Wars. This was at a time in English society when changing views allowed for accomplishment, rather than merely inherited wealth, to be considered a path to full acceptance as a gentleman. 

Nick DeSantis, Cayman Ilika & Matthew Posner in Persuasion at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
Anne Elliot's emotional struggles over her regrets, the feelings she still has for him, and the idea of a woman exerting her own will against the forces imposed on her by family and society, form the basis of the story. Will they reunite, or not? The lasting pain of of their shared past and the love each still feels provide a poignancy the fine acting and expressive voices of Ilika and Posner make relatable and deeply moving. Director Karen Lund has nurtured another winner.

The hope of having a second chance, and then the question of whether or not to make the most of that chance when it is offered, is a facet of human experience as relevant today as 200 years ago. Austen completed this novel, her last, in 1816, then died in 1817. It was published posthumously in 1818. She knew, first hand, about the barriers between the social classes and the rigid restrictions on women's choices. Born into a genteel but impoverished family, Austen's only hope of a better life was through marriage. Yet, she was not considered a suitable bride for the young man she loved, whose family persuaded him to marry for money instead. 

Caitlin Frances, Nick DeSantis & Matthew Posner in Persuasion at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
The novel's cast of characters are not all actually seen in this musical, and the audience must accept the fact that some actors play multiple characters who physically resembled each other perhaps a bit too much. But this did not really detract. All actors gave excellent performances! Lovely costumes by Sarah Burch Gordon and authentic dancing, choreographed by Katy Tabb, helped create the feel of the era. So did the work of Dialect Coach Ben Wippel.

The novel's rather complicated plot has been simplified here, but some knowledge of that source would help in understanding who is being referred to and what is happening. Another difference is that, in the musical, the character of Anne Elliot is more impassioned about the rights of women. She leaves little doubt about her progressive feminist views, whereas in the novel, she seems to have less of a sense of victimization and more tolerance for the idea of maintaining social order, even at the expense of personal freedom. In both the book and musical, Anne upholds the ideal of a marriage in which partners are equal.

Cayman Ilika, Sophia Franzella, Caitlin Frances, Chelsea LeValley & Kate Jaeger in Persuasion at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

The musical Persuasion was created in 2015 during the 5th Avenue Theatre's intense month-long event called NextFest: A Festival of New Musicals. Then, in 2016, it underwent refinement at the Texas Musical Theatre Workshop. The results will impress you. At first, the idea of a Jane Austen novel as a musical seemed strange, but I loved every minute. The music was so pleasing, and the lyrics expressed complex emotions and situations in a way that felt natural. I could hear every word clearly, with perfect volume. This production offers a delightful blend of serious social commentary, romantic tension, good humor, memorable characters, and the suspense of not knowing for sure what decisions those characters will make. With all of that, it added up to a most engaging performance. I highly recommend it. If you allow yourself to be influenced by my own persuasion, you will thank me.

Tickets will be gone soon! Order yours here.