Jude the Obscure, Part I

Burning Coal Theatre
Through May 5

Three kinds of novels can really give you the chills. One describes a path you might easily have taken. A second depicts one you actually took, in the past. The third? It shows the road you’re on.

So I have no doubt that generations of would-be scholars in their early 20s have uneasily regarded Thomas Hardy’s late novel Jude the Obscure as a tale told a bit too close to home. This errant pilgrim’s progress narrates the childhood and coming of age of a bookish young orphan growing up in his aunt’s house in a rural English village in the late 1800s. Though he lacks formal education and money, he dreams of attending college, and after petitioning a former village schoolmaster for grammar books in Latin and Greek, pours himself into his studies, on his own.

Until, that is, he discovers girlsor a girl, more accurately: one Arabella Donn. As they court, his lifelong plans of scholarship begin to slip a bit. And then slip a bit more. Depending on the reader, the book relates a series of academic and emotional bullets: some dodged, others likely taken.

In the premiere of Jude the Obscure, Part I, the first of a two-part musical theater adaptation at Burning Coal Theatre, playwright Ian Finley’s take on Hardy’s world is cinematic, brisk and sure-footed. Granted, some condensation is unavoidable when transferring the first half of such a detailed novel to the stage. The dry wryness in Hardy’s narrator is conveyed, at least in part, in the generous laugh lines Finley distributes among supporting characters vividly portrayed by Rob Jenkins, David Klionsky and particularly Julie Oliver, as the title character’s dour Aunt Drusilla. Somewhat more questionable is the license taken when Jude’s stalking episodes of his cousin Sue are erased here prior to their first meeting. (And, in my edition, it wasn’t a pig’s heart that Arabella flirtatiously threw at the object of her questionable affections.)

These are minor quibbles, though, when compared to the difficulties encountered in this production’s score. Jude leans far too much on two songs in particular: the opening number, “Marygreen,” which describes Jude’s childhood village, and “City of Light,” a later ode to the college town of his dreams. Though the playbill lists five reprises of “City” and three performances of “Marygreen,” the repeated scattering of verses among groupings of dialogue make them seem like a lot more.

Lyricist Jerome Davis attempts to probe the darker nuances of small-town life and a dreamed-of city, but after initially boosterish takes on both, the creeping sameness in composer Jonathan Fitts’ workmanlike melodies and the emotional monotone in most of their reprises ultimately flattens the different emotional valences Davis goes for. In these circumstances, five iterations of the same song feels like four too many.

Fitts finds better results in a tastefully spare arrangement of Isaac Watts’ 1709 hymn, “Now Shall My Inward Joys Arise,” and a second act meditation, “The Hymn,” but the lyrics of “The 20th Century” seem a desperate attempt to give this world some brief historical perspective.

Composer Bruce Benedict’s contributions are a mixed bag as well. Two second-act songs, the pensive “Wherewithall Shall A Young Man Cleanse His Way?” and “Let Me Enjoy the Earth,” are probably the show’s best numbers (even if Stephen LeTrent, as Jude, criminally undersold the former, before his similarly flaccid reading of Fitts’ “Take Care of Sue”). But they come after the meandering recitative and schoolyard melody of “Hallmark of a Man” and the awkward plainsong in “If It Were Me.”

Liz Beckham is a feisty enough Arabella, and Alice Rothman-Hicks illuminates the role of Sue, while Kirby Wahl brings us the ache in Jude’s not-quite-mentor, Phillotson. Under Davis’ direction, the work gradually critiques the title’s character irrelevant devotion to the novel’s targets: an aloof, elusive academic world, and the stifling effects of religion and marriage in that time.

But they’re appearing in a musical in which the music remains too problematic. Too often for comfort in Jude the Obscure, Part I, the song remains the same.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Four nights of Raleigh tales.”