A character faces the audience at the beginning of a play and starts narrating the story it's the most overused device in modern theater, a refuge for authors who find it easier to tell rather than dramatize. But when Jane Eyre, the heroine of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel, presents herself at the start of a Broadway show and addresses the "gentle audience," it is oddly refreshing. It promises something we rarely see in theater these days: old-fashioned, Victorian, what-happens-next? storytelling.
And for much of the way, that's exactly what "Jane Eyre," the new Broadway musical, delivers. Written and co-directed (along with Scott Schwartz) by John Caird, who collaborated with Trevor Nunn on the memorable stage adaptations of "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Les Misérables," the show does a faithful and efficient job of translating Brontë's romantic classic to the stage. Jane, the plain but plucky orphan, travels from the home of an aunt who hates her to a strict religious school that tries to drum the spirit out of her, to a position as governess in a fine house whose master, Mr. Rochester, is hiding a dark secret upstairs. There are talkative servants, glittery parties, mysterious doings in the middle of the night and, as usual, the triumph of goodness and sincerity over the restrictions of class and social propriety.
Modesty is a virtue, in Victorian novels as well as (in this age of falling chandeliers) Broadway musicals, but "Jane Eyre"'s low-tech production is underwhelming to a fault. Characters are typically surrounded by darkness, as sets are wheeled in and out a window, a chair, a broken chestnut tree. John Napier's design is often handsome, in its burnished browns and greens, but he and Caird don't seem up to the story's more difficult physical challenges: a fire set in Rochester's bedroom in the middle of the night, or Jane's first encounter with Rochester, when he is thrown from a horse on his way home. If you can't find a way to stage a horse accident convincingly, you might as well have the fellow just walk in the front door.
A more serious problem with "Jane Eyre," which has been on the slow track to Broadway since opening in Toronto in 1996, is its uninspired score, with music and lyrics (beware of newcomers who do both) by Paul Gordon. Lacking either the melodic sweep of Andrew Lloyd Webber or the anthemlike vitality of the "Les Miz" team, the music blends together into one pseudo-operatic murk. The lyrics, full of talk about spring mornings and secret souls, are no better, flattening Jane's spirit as firmly as any of her Victorian taskmasters. In the novel, for example, Jane makes a momentous decision, at age 18, to leave her stultifying school and strike out on her own. She writes up a newspaper ad seeking employment, trudges miles to town in the rain to deliver it, then treks back a week later to pick up the one and only reply. It's a quietly stirring proto-feminist sequence, but here it is transmuted into the banal musical yearnings of a romantic teenage girl: "Over mountains, over oceans/ Heaven take me away/ For I long for my liberty/ For sweet liberty I pray."
None of this can dull a fine performance by James Barbour, a magnetic and strong-voiced Rochester. With his flowing hair and smoldering passion, he can at least be thankful this show grabbed him before "Jekyll & Hyde." But Marla Schaffel, as Jane, fares less well. Despite a lovely voice, she seems altogether too poised and polished (not to mention too pretty) from the outset. Her desire for Rochester remains something we must take on faith, and her character, for all the gothic doings around her, seems to change little from beginning to end. And that, gentle reader, is something "Jane Eyre" cannot do without.