nytheatre.com review by Emily Otto
September 21, 2007
In the professional theatre world, community theatre is often regarded with disdain or condescension. New York theatre in particular tends to coolly disassociate itself from such a "provincial" enterprise. Austentatious, a musical about a community theatre troupe stumbling through a production of a Pride and Prejudice adaptation, enjoyed a sold out run at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival last year. The show, having moved up in the theatre world, is now featured in the New York Musical Theatre Festival, an organization that presumably offers the potential for even bigger and better production opportunities for its participants.
Herein lies the conundrum. As a production grows, it attracts more talented performers. When seasoned Broadway and off-Broadway actors do a show about community theatre, how should the show feel? Affectionate? Satirical? This production suffers from a bit of an identity crisis: it doesn't know whether it wants to mock its characters or give them a hug, and when in doubt, it falls back on being cute, which feels like a waste of the considerable talent of its cast.
The play follows these community players from audition to production: a clueless director who tries to please everyone (Stephen Bel Davies), an ambitious actress/dancer/adaptor who insists on the artistic viability of setting a scene of the play on a pirate ship (Stacey Sargeant), a drug-addled man-child using rehearsals as a way to get out of "group" (Paul Wyatt), a sweet community theatre veteran dreaming of stardom (Lisa Asher), a conniving sexpot willing to do whatever it takes for a big part (Amy Goldberger), her doting boyfriend who has no intention of auditioning but ends up playing Mr. Darcy (George Merrick), and the overburdened, cheerful stage manager who desperately tries to hold the show together (Stephanie D'Abruzzo). The show's songs generally reveal the inner monologue of the characters. In the group numbers, characters frequently speak dialogue to each other within the song, then sing what they're really feeling to the audience.
This central conceit of singing one truth and speaking another, while a clever idea, poses a problem for the production. When characters are singing, they're generally sweet and sympathetic, but not particularly interesting. When they're speaking, they're over-the-top and caricatured, but ultimately more entertaining. The most enjoyable scene in the show is the play-within-a-play, which evokes comparisons to Shakespeare's mechanicals in its hilarious ineptitude, but features absolutely no singing. Perhaps if the music or lyrics were either hilarious or heart-rending, the show could overcome this inconsistency, but aside from a fast-paced, clever number that speeds through a cue-to-cue technical rehearsal, the score holds few memorable moments. The able, winsome cast manages to distract their audience from the unfortunate fact that their performances are more entertaining than the actual material.
To be clear, Austentatious is often enjoyable, but its tone is so uneven that it's difficult to imagine its future. Could it run on Broadway? Off-Broadway? In—gasp —community theatre? The show's book was written by five people: Matt Board, Jane Caplow, Kate Galvin, Luisa Hinchliff, and Joe Slabe; Board and Slabe wrote the music and lyrics. This unusually large gaggle of authors may account, to some degree, for the show's inconsistencies. Originally produced under a different title in London, the play has already been rewritten for an American audience. Perhaps it could be retooled further, in the interest of working toward being either a parody or a valentine. As the piece stands right now, it's trying to be both, and unfortunately, neither approach fully succeeds.