P.T. Mahoney, Tim Ahlenius, and Christian Owen in “Prejudice and Pride” (Brian Paulette)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is no shortage of “Pride and Prejudice” adaptations in the world. Jane Austen’s 19th Century novel has been made into countless movies and mini-series, plus all the spin-offs, reimaginings, web series, and plenty more. With all that exists, do we really need another high-concept twist on this classic? Well, when the idea and the execution are as great as what is currently on display in the new folk musical “Prejudice and Pride,” why would we say no?
“Prejudice and Pride” comes from SamWrites & Nicholas Collett Productions, but is having its world premiere at Music Theater Heritage as the winner of the 2022 MTH Residency Award, heading soon to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The concept is certainly a novel one: a fully gender-swapped version of the classic, set in rural East Tennessee. The play’s multiple settings include a down-home honky tonk of a bar and, of course, various parties, but the small band (Chris Hudson on guitar and Mark Hamblin on bass) remain onstage throughout the entire show, though they’re not the only source of music. Music is a constant presence onstage, to the point that the classic Lizzie/Darcy—sorry, I mean Bennett/Darcy—feud often takes the form of a banjo vs. guitar battle royale. (If you find yourself wondering, as I did about three minutes into the show, how you can get your hands on the soundtrack, rest assured that yes, it is for sale in the lobby.)
Doing a full gender-swap of a show that is so entirely rooted in gender dynamics is tough, to put it mildly. While not everything works perfectly, the show succeeds by treating class dynamics with the same degree of respect and nuance that Austen and her readers show to historic gender inequities. It’s a bit jarring to hearing the Longborn boys sing about their desire to find a “pretty li’l gold mine” to marry when the premise of needing to marry (and marry rich) was the only survival option open to not just to the Bennett sisters of the source material but so many women beholden to the strict institutional class and gender constraints of the time, but the show truly does make it work.
The music is, hands down, the star of this show but the comedic work on display is impressive. This is a talented cast across the board, to the point that it’s hard to even mention standouts. But Tim Ahlenius sets a fantastically hilarious, fast-talking (or rather, fast-singing) tone right away as the Longborn patriarch. Katie Gilchrist (as multiple characters) and Christian Thomas Owen (as the youngest Longborn son, Lyle) are welcome delights every time they appear onstage, injecting bursts of comedic energy into an already buzzing production. Owen, especially, dominates much of the third act with a deliberately, delightfully bizarre QAnon subplot. Sam Wright and Bridget Casad also do strong work as the central conflicted pairing of Bennett and Darcy, although there is so much going on in this show that the iconic romance often seems muted compared to the rest of it.
Too often, this sort of extremely high-concept reimagining of a classic feels like its conceit is slapped on haphazardly, like icing on a cake rather than incorporating it into the actual recipe. I actually can’t think of the last time I saw this kind of iconic source material so beautifully and naturally woven into a new idea. Co-creators Sam Wright and Nicholas Collett (who also directs) say they spent the last two years working to develop the project, and the time and care they put into it shows.
“Prejudice & Pride,” a production of SamWrites & Nicholas Collett Productions, runs through July 24 at MTH’s Main Stage Theater at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd. For more information, visit musictheaterheritage.com