By Stanford Friedman
It turns out that the sense and sensibilities of Jane Austen can be neatly showcased in a sequence of country-western ballads, played on the banjo and written by a young man from Kansas City. Such is the revelation of Prejudice & Pride, an ambitious musical born out of the American Midwest, with an assist from a British director, making its New York premier on the 59E59 main stage.
The young man in question is Sam Wright, who not only wrote the music and lyrics, but co-wrote the book along with the show’s director Nicholas Collett, co-produced the show, designed the set and portrays the lead character, Lizzie Bennet. Whoops, I mean Bennett Longborn. For in this re-telling of Austen’s famous romance, not only is the title reversed, the sexes are too.
So, instead of the Longbourn estate in Hertfordshire, England, the action is set in Hereford County, Tennessee, with the five Bennet daughters swapped out for three Longborn brothers (Cutbacks are everywhere these days.). In addition to Wright’s moody Bennett, there is Jake (PT Mahoney), the handsome elder sibling, and Lyle (Chris Owen), the dumb as dirt youngest. Turning Austen’s famous opening line on its ear, Bennett intones, “A young single woman possessed of a fortune/Is universally acknowledged to be in want of a husband.”
Egged on by their in-need-of-a-fortune Papa and Mama (Tim Ahlenius and Margaret Shelby) and guided by misunderstandings, fate, forgiveness and good ole lust, the boys meet, misjudge and ultimately marry bright spouses of varying temperament. For Jake, there is Carly Bing (Stefanie Stevens), a millionaire social media influencer. Their romance is undernourished here, with not a single duet to help their love along. For Lyle, there is Victoria “Wick” Hamm (Stevens) a failed congressional candidate turned National Guard member who woos Lyle down a conspiratorial rabbit hole. And Bennett meets his match in Darcy Fitzwilliams (Bridget Casad), the heir to a New York broadcasting empire. Their impassioned Act One finale finds them circling each other like hungry sharks.
As if a countrified, gender-swapped, contemporary musical version of an 1813 novel isn’t enough of a challenge, Wright and Collett also have a lot to say about wealth and the working class, right-wing extremism and the healing powers of rye whiskey. When they say it in song, the work is captivating, with clever, at times risky lyrics, sung over the heartfelt twang of banjo and guitar. Standouts include “Pour Another Finger,” an aching song of sedition for the blue collar man caught between cancel culture and factory layoffs, and “Through the Glass” a settling down lament sung by Bennett’s friend Luke (Chris Arnone), “When I was young I played at cops and cowboys/Now I take whatever jobs are left.” Other tunes geared to play off Austen’s text also fare well, especially “Dear Bennett,” which puts to music Darcy’s pivotal goodbye letter.
But the book is not so self-assured. The dialog careens from dry humor to Hee Haw yucks as the writers try to hit every Austen plot point – of which there are many – while juggling their contemporary concerns. By the time that Victoria and Lyle decide to storm the Capitol, à la January 6, things have gone pretty far off the rails. It would be dizzying except for the fact that Collett directs his nine member cast at a pace that often feels lethargic, with energy-sapping pauses dragging out the proceedings.
That KC-centric cast, all making their Off-Broadway debut, are nonetheless a pleasing bunch. What Wright lacks in finding Bennett’s subtleties, he makes up for with his fine singing and strumming. He, and we, come alive whenever Casad’s Darcy takes the stage with her rich, clear voice and penetrating eyes. Stevens shows off her flexibility, not only in the constant switching between Carly and Victoria, but also as the show’s choreographer. And Franci Talamantez-Witte, as the Reverend Willamina Cole, who holds the deed on the Bennet farm, dishes out high energy blasts of broad comedy as she husband hunts her way through the Longborn family tree.
Prejudice & Pride – By Sam Wright & Nicholas Collett, directed by by Nicholas Collett.
WITH: Tim Ahlenius (Papa Longborn/Senator DeBerg), Chris Arnone (State Trooper/Luke Charlton/Big Chaps clerk), Bridget Casad (Darcy Fitzwilliams), PT Mahoney (Jake Longborn), Christian Thomas Owen (Lyle Longborn/Georgie), Margaret Shelby (Mama Longborn/Tour Guide/Judge), Stefanie Stevens (Carly Bing/Victoria “Wick” Hamm), Franci Talamantez-Witte (Jane/Rev. Willamina Cole/Reporter/Lawyer) and Sam Wright (Bennett Longborn), with Mark Hamblin on bass and Chris Hudson on guitar.
Choreography by Stefanie Stevens, scenic design by Sam Wright, costume design by Lauren Long, lighting design by Jen Leno, and sound design by Jeff Eubank. Kevin Bogan, Music Director. 59E59 Theaters, 59 E 59th St. 646-892-7999, https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/prejudice-pride/. Running time: 2 hours. Through August 20.