CST's intimate 'Sense and Sensibility' nothing less than sublime

Before the orchestra plays a note of composer/lyricist Paul Gordon's exquisite score. Before Sharon Rietkerk and Megan McGinnis delight with their winning performances as the sisters Dashwood. Before a single scene unfolds in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's world premiere of “Sense and Sensibility,” the musical adapted from Jane Austen's novel, the audience encounters the simple elegance of Kevin Depinet's set.

It's dominated by an intriguing, distinctly feminine sculpture that unfurls from the stage to float over it like a ribbon, or a wayward curl escaped from a lady's coiffure. Perhaps it's meant to recall a piece of parchment on which a young woman might write to her beloved, I thought, or maybe it's the deconstructed symbol for the treble clef, not far-fetched considering the format.

The meaning matters less than how fully it engaged my imagination, and I'm not just talking about Depinet's sculpture.

Commissioned by Chicago Shakespeare, developed with creative producer Rick Boynton's invaluable assistance and masterfully helmed by Gaines, this entire production is a sublime work of art. Which isn't that surprising considering its pedigree.

Austen's witty, romantic rumination on the importance of balancing reason and restraint with passion and abandon is unmatched as source material, which Gordon (Tony Award nominee for his “Jane Eyre” score) adapted. He excised several characters, but kept Austen's language, which is one of the great charms of this well-told tale.

The musical is a contemporary chamber-style show with a score that brilliantly pairs modern harmonies with a period sensibility. Anyone who saw Northlight Theatre's 2010 production of “Daddy Long Legs” knows how winning that combination can be. Gordon's lyrical, effervescent score for “Sense and Sensibility” transitions easily from serene to restless, mirroring the opposing temperaments of his well-defined protagonists.

Older sister Elinor (the graceful, winningly expressive Sharon Rietkerk) is cautious and reserved, while the younger Marianne — played with endless passion by the very charming Megan McGinnis, co-star of Northlight's “Daddy Long Legs” — is fiery, impetuous and outspoken. One of the show's great joys is the absolute authenticity of their performances, how perfectly the voices of these superb singer/actresses complement each other and how well their delicate singing complements Gordon's score. It is a match made in musical theater heaven.

Another delight is how dialogue flows seamlessly from asides and musings into song and back again as in the number “So the Poets Say,” which begins with a Byron quotation, morphs into a lilting tune and concludes where it began. Lovely. Lovely too are Larry Hochman and Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations, impeccably played by the 10-piece orchestra under conductor/pianist Laura Bergquist.

The story unfolds in 18th-century England and centers on the romantic entanglements of the Dashwood sisters, who find themselves financially adrift when their father dies and leaves his estate to his oldest son, their half-brother John (David Schlumpf). Inclined to support his sisters as his father intended, John is persuaded by his greedy, controlling wife, Fanny (Tiffany Scott), to basically cut the girls off. Enter distant relative Lord Middleton (a most agreeable Michael Aaron Lindner) and his late wife's mother, Mrs. Jennings (another expertly timed comic turn from the great Paula Scrofano), an endearing gossip who wants nothing more than to see the girls married.

Lord Middleton invites Elinor and Marianne to stay at his cottage in the country, where they met the gracious, albeit much older Colonel Brandon (a deeply felt, beautifully sung performance from the terrific Sean Allan Krill, in a role he was born to play). Brandon is taken with Marianne, who does not return his affection, which he ruefully notes in “Wrong Side of Five & Thirty.” It's the dashing, wavy-haired rogue Mr. Willoughby, played by Peter Saide, who captures her fancy.

As for Elinor — who I've always believed belonged with Colonel Brandon, whose intellect and compassion equals her own — she “esteems” the charmingly awkward Edward Ferrars (Wayne Wilcox in a lightly comic turn). Alas, Edward has been secretly engaged to Lucy Steele, another distinctive performance by relative newcomer Emily Berman.

Susan E. Mickey's gorgeous period costumes reflect Austen's characters: cool blues for the serene and contained Elinor, shades of red and blush for passionate Marianne, gold for the generous Lord Middleton and crimson for the libertine Willoughby. Depinet's set is uncluttered save for a few pieces. Crystal chandeliers and towering French doors sufficiently express the elegance of the era, and keep the focus where it belongs, on these most intimate relationships, the most enduring of which is the eternal bond — the sisterhood of the soul — that links Elinor and Marianne. They are, in the end, each other's better half.

Prudent Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) finds romance with the earnest Edward (Wayne Wilcox) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's musical adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" by writer/composer/lyricist Paul Gordon. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
Sean Allan Krill is terrific as the devoted Colonel Brandon, a good man on the "Wrong Side of Five & Thirty" in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's musical adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility," directed by Barbara Gaines. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
In the dashing Mr. Willoughby (Peter Saide), romantic Marianne Dashwood (Megan McGinnis) finds a partner as passionate as she is in the new musical "Sense and Sensibility." It runs through June 7 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
Kevin Depinet's arresting set is among the many joys of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's world premiere musical "Sense and Sensibility," adapted from Jane Austen's novel by writer/composer/lyricist Paul Gordon. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

“Sense and Sensibility”

★ ★ ★ ★

<b>Location:</b> Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, (312) 595-5600 or <a href=""></a>

<b>Showtimes:</b> 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday; through June 7. 1 p.m. show May 14. No 6:30 p.m. show May 3, 17, 31 and June 7. No 7:30 p.m. show May 6, 14 or 19.

<b>Running time:</b> About 2 hours, 35 minutes, with intermission

<b>Tickets:</b> $48-$78

<b>Parking:</b> Garage adjacent to theater; validation available at the box office

<b>Rating:</b> For general audiences

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