And the Christmas shows just keep on coming and I’m fine with that, give me Christmas shows in July if they are as perfectly wonderful as Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley at Lyric Arts is. I’ve enjoyed many a show at this Main Street Stage but this ranks right up there as one of the best. I’m always wary of modern sequels to classics and as such though this has been performed locally before this was my first time. I am a fan of Jane Austen and Pride & Prejudice, though it’s been decades since I read the novel, I did rewatch one of the film versions last week as a refresher. I found this, the first in a trilogy of Christmas at Pemberley plays by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, to be a worthy and continuation of the story of the Bennet sisters. The play spoke to the same emotions I experience when enjoying Austen’s original works and their adaptations. The same thrill of will they or won’t they, the highs of the romance, the infuriating injustices, and the admiration for such strong female characters. Gunderson and Melcon have captured the spirit of Austen’s characters and given us the next chapter in their story which is as rewarding as revisiting the original. Lyric Arts has exceeded all expectations with a wonderful set and a cast that could not be improved upon. If you enjoy Austen’s books or the film and television adaptation you will not want to miss this brilliant production.
Gunderson and Melcon pick up the story of the Bennet sisters two years after the events in Pride & Prejudice. It is Christmas and Mr. and Mrs Darcy formerly Miss Elizabeth Bennet are hosting Christmas for her family. First to arrive are Mr. and Mrs. Bingley who is Elizabeth’s sister Jane along with their sister Mary Bennet, who is the Miss Bennet of the title. As Pride & Prejudice revolved around the romantic lives of Elizabeth, Jane, and Lydia, who arrives shortly after the others, this one will revolve around Mary, unmarried sister. Kitty, the 5th and youngest sister does not appear nor does Georgiana, Mr. Darcy’s younger sister, though their story is told in the third of the Christmas at Pemberley cycle Georgiana & Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley which is currently being produced by the Jungle Theater in Uptown (watch for a review of that play later in the week). Also in attendance is Arthur de Bourgh who has just inherited the estate of his late aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh who tried to come between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth in P&P on behalf of her daughter Anne who also appears in this story. It becomes obvious that Mary and Arthur are cut from the same cloth as soon as they meet, but as always seems to be the case with these Bennet girls the road to happiness cannot be as smooth as simply finding each other. The script addresses themes common in Austen’s work, there are misunderstandings, senses of misplaced duty and responsibility, and subtle critiques of customs and gender roles.
The cast is led by Elizabeth Efteland as Mary Bennet and Scott Laban as Arthur de Bourgh and they are both perfectly suited for their roles. Efteland plays the no nonsense Mary as a young woman who has grown into some of the traits we recognize from her sister Elizabeth. Laban, who is making his Twin Cities acting debuts and manages to play Arthur as someone unable to stand up for themselves but somehow make that an endearing quality. The chemistry between Efteland and Laban is palpable, it’s clear from their first interactions that these two should be together. Heaven help the production who casts these roles with lesser talents, both roles could easily be played in a way that would incite as much irritation from the audience as warmth, but this pair finds just the right tone in every scene that we never want for anything less then their complete and utter happiness. The entire cast is great it’s hard to single out anyone but I do want to take notice of two performers that were new to me and that really delivered. Noah Hynick as Mr. Bingley was a treat, his delivery well timed for comic effect. Katrina Stelk as Anne de Bourgh, a character you can’t stand, thanks in no small part to Stelk’s performance. She commits totally to her characters snobbishness and domineering attitude, it’s a character you love to hate. Really one of the best ensemble casts I’ve had the pleasure to see this season, one hopes that Lyric Arts will schedule the next two plays during the next two years utilizing this cast if possible.
Director Elena Giannetti has found the tone for this play that matches what I feel when I read Austen. This feels like the perfect fit between director and script, the pacing is quick without being rushed and she blocks the characters so as to make the most of a set that makes a medium sized stage look larger than it is. The set design by Greg Vanselow has outdone anything I’ve seen him achieve in the past. It’s the use of the space to create the sense of a larger room than we are actually viewing. It is truly beautiful in design and execution and possibly the best looking set I’ve seen yet at Lyric Arts. Like every other aspect of this production I was impressed and all expectations were exceeded. The props by Kat Walker, the work of scenic artist Victoria Clawson, and the lighting design by Kurt Jung all enhanced and complimented the set. The Costumes by Samantha Fromm Haddow were wonderful, I was rather taken with Mary’s costumes in particular, especially a smart blue coat she wears for one scene and her shawls throughout. This really was one of the best looking shows I’ve seen at Lyric Arts as well.
I urge every to catch this beguiling production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley at Lyric Arts in Anoka. It felt like sending time with old friends again and what a wonderful feeling that is at this time of year. The show runs through December 18th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.lyricarts.org/miss-bennet
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