Opening night of Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of Persuasion began with an earnest pre-show explanation from director Robert Smyth about the context and significance, socially and academically, of Jane Austen’s last novel (published four years after her death). Smyth’s mini-lecture, essentially reproduced inside the program along with a detailed roster of the Regency romance’s interweaving families, suggested that the audience might either become confused or fail to recognize the import of Austen’s free-thinking heroine, Anne Elliot. But Persuasion is not that obtuse. While Anne is a complex character, the drama around her both in Austen’s novel and in this musical adaptation by Harold Taw and Chris Jeffries is a straightforward one: Will she reunite after eight years with the suitor she was forced to turn away?
As a musical, Taw’s and Jeffries’ show takes full advantage of the mannerisms, traditions and class distinctions of the early 1800s in southwest England. Songs spring from the stiff upper lips of the romantic leads, of course, but the jealousies and eccentricities of the tale’s other characters are also mined for pleasant, mostly expository musical numbers. While Persuasion’s tension encircles Anne (Allison Spratt Pearce) and the dashing Captain Wentworth (David S. Humphrey), it’s the comic relief provided by the gossips and social climbers on their periphery that keep solemnity at bay.
The beautifully voiced Spratt Pearce is enjoying an extraordinary year, having already given superb performances in Cygnet Theatre’s The Last Wife and Diversionary’s The Loneliest Girl in the World. Her melancholy Anne is sympathetic but strong, and when she at last is able to smile in the arms of her captain, the smile is contagious. Humphrey is stalwart and sincere as Wentworth, residing though he does in a rather stiff character. The supporting turns are delightful, including in multiple roles Linda Libby, Megan Carmichael and Omri Schein, the latter in drag that recalls Peter Sellers at his “The Mouse That Roared” best.
As expected the costumes designed by Jeanne Reith are exquisite, and the musical accompaniment by an ensemble under the direction of Patrick Marion is lush.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/17/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.