note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
John Jakes, the best-selling author of American historical novels, is not afraid of a challenge. Indulging his lifelong love of theater and the fiction of Charles Dickens, he has compressed the complex plot of "Great Expectations" into about 140 minutes of musical entertainment, which Goodspeed Musicals has staged at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Conn.
Dickens is a wonderfully theatrical novelist, and "Great Expectations" deserves a great play. The question is: Is this it? The saga of the orphan Pip (Andrew Blau plays the child; Michael Winther, grownup Pip), who is chosen by an elderly, embittered, once-jilted bride (Miss Havisham, played by Rita Gardner) as a test victim for the adopted girl she is raising to break men's hearts (Estella, played by Annah Roozelle as the child and by Rachael Warren as the adult), is delightfully salted with good, evil, weak and perplexing characters. And the Goodspeed version faithfully retains them, along with the novel's convoluted plot and Dickens' most beloved lines.
The pace is steady, aided by songs designed primarily to move the story forward. (Jakes wrote the lyrics; Mel Marvin, the music.) If you took your high school English class, you would be grateful for the artistry involved in seamlessly covering all the main points. But although the production is professionally executed and has no obvious rough spots, neither does it offer moments of brilliance. The reason may be that a great Dickens, like a great play, is more than plot, character and funny one-liners. It is even more than a character gaining self-knowledge the hard way. It has a quirky, individualistic soul.
Dramatic as Dickens is, his works are notoriously lacking in impact when staged. The Royal Shakespeare Theater uncovered one secret of success with its "Nicholas Nickleby," when it made the decision to keep the author's voice by having the cast recite chunks of narration. Jakes has the adult Pip narrate from the Pip point of view – a good idea, but not quite the same thing. Although one hesitates to criticize the play for its strength (faithfulness to the text), one cannot help thinking that it would be better if it were less archival. If Jakes had decided on his own view of the story's essence first and then had written something based on the book, much as "Sunset Boulevard" was (an extreme example), the results might have packed more theatrical power.
As for the music, the best songs were those that did more than move the plot along: for example, the lovely duet "Southern Star," sung by Pip and his surprise benefactor (Robert Aronson as Magwitch, the escaped convict that a ten-year-old terrified Pip once assisted). Estella's sad explanation of why she has a cold heart, "If You Were Told," also was affecting apart from plot considerations.
One brief and easily missed bit showed why a play is not a novel – and what this play might have been with a different vision. The man who betrayed Miss Havisham, Compeyson (Jamie Jackson), momentarily arrests the production's headlong hurtling action with his scornful sneering, astonished laugh about his former partner, Miss Havisham's no-good stepbrother Arthur, going mad from guilt. Jackson provides a lovely moment of drama -- one that evaporates as the play rushes to its conclusion.
It appears that overall, the actors were not encouraged develop much more than plot. Nevertheless, deserving of special mention are: William Ryall as the ambiguous lawyer Jaggers, Kristin Woodbury as the sweet village girl Pip might have loved if great expectations hadn't skewed his character, and Ken Krugman as the sinister Drummle, who courts Estella.
Director Kent Thompson (with admirable support from scenery designer Emily Beck, costume designer Pamela Scofield and lighting designer Mark Stanley) has orchestrated some effective staging. An angry sunset over the marshes of the Thames alternates with smoggy London steeples and rooftops as a backdrop to 17 (count 'em) scenes. With a rotating platform and set pieces deftly moved on and off the stage, Dickens' nineteenth-century world comes to life: upper class and lower class; poverty and wealth; country and city; innocence and corruption.
Michael P. Price was the producer; Jason W. Harshaw, the technical director; and Janet Watson, the choreographer. "Great Expectations" runs through Aug. 26 in Chester, Conn., exit 6 off Route 9. For further information, call (860) 873-8668, or see www.goodspeed.org.