Theater review: Shadowbox Live’s “Madness and Lust”

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From the February 6, 2014 edition

With her 1847 “Wuthering Heights,” Emily Brontë helped invent the modern gothic novel. With its “Madness and Lust,” Shadowbox Live has contributed the latest chapter in its continuing evolution of the CliffsNotes jukebox rock musical.

Let’s credit “Madness and Lust,” conceived and choreographed by Katy Psenicka, with original scenes written by Jimmy Mak, and directed by Stev Guyer, for taking on one of the most honored and influential classics of English literature. Brontë’s original narrative spans some three decades, whereas this Shadowbox Stage 2 production relates its tale in two hours. So of course, sacrifices are made and understandable. Still, the howling winds you hear as the lights go up on the Shadowbox stage? They might sound like the gusts sweeping the Yorkshire moors, but one soon suspects they blow through the holes left by missing subtext, subtlety and substance.

As is so often the case with Shadowbox, the music outshines everything else, precisely played and stunningly sung. The sequence featuring The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?,” Matthew Hahn’s original “Wedding Reception,” and 30 Seconds to Mars’ “The Kill (Bury Me),” is particularly effective.

In his “original scenes,” playwright Mak neither mimics nor condenses Brontë’s Victorian prose. (One actual exchange: Housekeeper Nelly: “Heathcliff, you look nice.” Heathcliff’s response: “This place looks terrible.”) Perhaps a nod toward Brontë’s style might have helped raise the acting level above the hammy and histrionic. Psenicka’s choreography is beholden more to the length of the songs than the needs of the story.

“Madness and Lust” inflicts withering slights on poor Emily Brontë.