If Jane Austen’s Dashwood sisters are character studies of head and heart, Act I and Act II of Sense & Sensibility, The Musical can just as easily be studied as what makes a good musical – and what doesn’t.
Overall, the world premiere of Sense at The Stage Theatre at the Denver Center for Performing Arts is a refreshing take on a modern musical. When too many musicals are relying on impressive but distracting LED-light backdrops and show stopping numbers that just fall short (see: Catch Me If You Can and the reboot of Jekyll & Hyde), Sense utilizes a classic character driven plot, sweet melodies and some of the best skills on Broadway to deliver.
But could its best also be its worst?
Based on one of Austen’s most beloved tales, Sense, does well by the author. Set in 18th Century England, the story explores what happens when a well-to-do family splinters after the death of its patriarch (hint: the women get nothing), and how two sisters and three men approach love.
Stephanie Rothenberg anchors the cast as Elinor Dashword, the strong older sister. Rothenberg made her Broadway debut last year as Rosemary opposite of Nick Jonas in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Mastering the role of the younger Marianne Dashwood is Mary Michael Patterson. Patterson made her Broadway debut in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Tony-winning revival of Anything Goes.
Both Rothenberg and Patterson serve up quality performances. Though neither steals the show.
That honor goes to Ruth Gottschall as Mrs. Jennings, the gossipy match-making aunt. Serving up a Bernadette Peters-like performance, Gottschall has had leading roles on Broadway including Les Miserables and Hairspray.
Entangling with the Dashwood sisters are Nick Verina as Edward, Jeremiah James as Willoughby and Robert Petkoff as Colonel Bradon.
Verina, who recently started as Young Ben in the revival of Follies, is the perfect match in mousiness for Rothenberg’s Elinor. James, who starred as Billy Bigelow in the West End revival of Carousel, is as handsome and dastardly as he is talented. And Petkoff wins the audience (and eventually the girl) with his hopelessness and loyalty. The actor was last seen in Denver in 2000 in Tantalus.
The major hiccup for Sense is the balance between the two acts.
Act I feels more like a play with music than a musical.
The ensemble is completely absent between the first and last scene. There’s probably too much dialogue and the pace is slower. Yes, the musical is following a piece of 18th century literature that implores a classic story structure, but a nip here and a tuck there would quickly improve the audience’s experience.
Meanwhile, in Act II, the ensemble is featured in nearly half of the scenes and in several unexpected ways. A personal favorite is “With Her Beside You” featuring members of the chorus as park statues. And in a total reversal, Act II leaves you wanting encore after encore.
The buzz around The Denver Center Theatre Company is that Sense – which was first noticed at the 2012 Colorado New Play Summit – has all the ingredients to make it to Broadway. And while I happily suggest Out Front readers treat themselves to a night at The Stage Theatre to partake in this guilty pleasure of love conquers all, I’m not sure Sense is ready to tackle Broadway.
The music and lyrics are fresh and up-tempo, but it lacks blockbuster ballads.
For a small house like The Stage, the production values are visually pleasing but I have a hard time imagining it being reproduced in mega-theatres across the nation like The Buell.
Simply: it has a little too much sense and not enough sensibility.
Sense and Sensibility, The Musical’ plays through May 26 at the Denver Center Stage Theatre, 1101 13th St. r More info at DenverCenter.org.