Lifeline’s NORTHANGER Just Misses the Austen Mark

Lifeline’s NORTHANGER Just Misses the Austen Mark

Anyone who has read Austen knows that she is whip-crack smart, that her characters, while often seeming silly or misguided, are beautifully fleshed out, honest to their time, even if they end up being someone we don’t like. The love affair between the heroine and her dashing would-be suitor are the kind of stories that take your breath away because they are so innocent in their origin and execution. For the Austen fan, hearing how ardently we are admired or how deeply we are esteemed is enough to make us weak in the knees. Unfortunately, that feeling of longing and deep character development does not translate onto the stage in Lifeline’s world premiere musical version of NORTHANGER ABBEY.

There are many things to enjoy about this production. Stephanie Stockstill certainly holds her own as Catherine Mooreland, our innocent heroine with a very vivid imagination and a love for gothic novels. Javier Ferreira does his best to make Catherine’s love-at-first-sight Henry Tilney worthy of that kind of admiration. But, through no fault of their own, I could never get on the same page and find their journey believable in the way I do in Austen’s novel.

While it kills me to say it, I think the fact that NORTHANGER ABBEY is a musical stopped me from being able to come on this adventure with them. George Howe’s score is lovely, and they certainly have singers who can handle the jumps in range (most notably Stockhill, Ferreira and Chris Ballou, who plays Catherine’s brother, James Mooreland), but none of the songs feel like they are born in the moment because words are no longer enough. They don’t move anything forward, but rather they reiterated what was already known about the person(s) in the scene.

The novel is Austen’s parody of Gothic fiction. Maybe not as polished as some of her later work, but an interesting and humorous commentary on popular books dictating etiquette of the time. While Robert Kauzlaric’s adaptation seems to understand these ideas, it falls short of capturing the essence of Jane Austen’s characters that keep a modern audience from checking out, because they can’t find a reason to relate.

Whisked to Bath with family friend Mrs. Allen (Jennifer Tyler), Catherine Mooreland—1 of 10 children from a family of no fortune—is dropped into a society she knows very little of. Her imagination runs rampant, so much so that she falls in love with Henry, who is pretty much the first man she encounters at her first high society gathering. She befriends Isabella Thorpe (Lydia Hiller), who soon becomes engaged to her brother James, but breaks the engagement off after her head is turned by Henry’s older brother Fredrick (Denzel Tsopnang), all while Catherine is pursued by Isabella’s socially awkward, needy brother John (Andres Enriquez).

Through a series of societal stumbles and oh-so-fortunate coincidences, Catherine is invited by Mr. Tilney to Northanger Abbey, where she is to be a companion to Eleanor Tilney (Shelby Lynn Bias) sister of Catherine’s true love Henry. Henry, who grows ever fond of Catherine, encourages her vivid imagination by setting her up to believe that Northanger is exactly like the Abbey’s in her gothic novels, and from there Catherine takes over, conjuring up the murder of Henry’s mother at the hands of his father, and humiliating herself when her imagination becomes something she can no longer control.

Of course, other plot-lines are also at work, and Catherine finds herself being cast out of Northanger Abbey for no conceivable reason, thus inciting humiliation upon her person and subjecting her to being the talk of the town when she returns home to her family. But rather than have this play continue for months on end where it eventually wraps itself up into a neat little ball, and Catherine and Henry marry, Lifeline’s production gives Catherine a little brass and rather than being sent away from Northanger all misunderstandings are immediately resolved, and we sing a happy song to the joyous couple who wed before our eyes.

NORTHANGER ABBEY is not an easy book to turn into a 2.5-hour play, and when you add in that it’s a musical, well you can’t have it all, and the story had to be cut. Which is why the ending felt so rushed. If you know the story, you know there is more to the ending, and you’d like a bit more resolution for some of the characters, most notably Eleanor. She is given a number in Act Two that had the potential to solidify our love for her, but by the time we get there we just don’t know enough about her trials and the whole scene fell flat. That said, Elise Kauziaric’s staging made excellent use of the intimate Lifeline space, and I have to say my favorite moments were the ones between Henry and Catherine. Those moments were so close to the Austen intimacy missing, and I think with a bit more fleshing out they would have found that voice.

I appreciate Lifeline taking on such a work. While it certainly has its moments of charm, it does, however, fall short of capturing the Austen-esque world that has made the love of her novels so universal and long-standing.

About author

Abigail Trabue

Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue