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Burning Coal’s “Jude the Obscure” Is a Two-Part Musical Adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Novel

Stephen LeTrent as the grown-up title character in Burning Coal Theatre Company's two-part musical stage adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)

Stephen LeTrent as the grown-up title character in Burning Coal Theatre Company's two-part musical stage adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)

Burning Coal Theatre Company will present Ian Finley, Jerome Davis, and Bruce Benedict’s two-part musical stage adaptation of Jude the Obscure, based on the 1895 novel by English novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), on April 12-15, 19-22, and 26-29 and May 3-5 in Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School, near the Historic Oakwood Section of downtown Raleigh, NC.

“I found out perhaps two years ago that Jude the Obscure was [Burning Coal producing artistic director] Jerry [Davis]’ favorite novel,” recalls the small professional theater’s director of education and resident playwright Ian Finley, “and he’d long considered adapting it for the stage. A few months later, I was working on a few settings of Hardy’s verse for a vocal recital, which spurred a conversation between Jerry and me about Jude, Hardy, music, and dramatization. Not long after, Jerry and I had committed ourselves and were neck-deep in structural analysis of the novel!”

“I read Jude the Obscure when I was in my late teens,” remembers Jerry Davis. “I’d read The Mayor of Casterbridge [1886] and Far from the Madding Crowd [1874] in a very short period of time, and Jude the Obscure was the one of that trio that really set my mind to reeling.”

Davis adds, “I probably began to conceive of [Jude the Obscure] as a stage play around that time, and have carried the fanciful notion in my head ever since. About two years ago, I asked our resident playwright, Ian Finley, to read the book and let me know if he thought it was stage-able. He came back to me with an emphatic ‘Yes’.

“Then, in the interim, I met Bruce Benedict, who plays in what I would call an ‘old timey’ rock band,” Davis explains. “They use musical instruments from the 19th century and even earlier, but with electric guitar, bass, drums, etc., as well, and pack a real punch. When I heard his band, I thought maybe he’d be the right composer for a musical adaptation of Jude the Obscure.

“Ian and I approached him, he agreed, and the rest is history, so to speak,” says Jerry Davis. “Later, because it became clear we needed so much music (about 45 songs) in order to tell the story, we enlisted the help of Jonathan Fitts, a brilliant musician, composer, and actor, who had performed in Hair for us in Raleigh and in Einstein’s Dreams in Washington, DC, in a co-production we did up there. Jon ended up writing about half the material.”

Jerry Davis notes, “We workshopped [Jude the Obscure] repeatedly last year, with about 30 artists in the room, and made some significant changes based on that. Ian [Finley] wrote the script, and then he and I hacked away at it after each workshop to get it into a reasonable timeframe (about two hours per part, I believe). Same with the music and lyrics. We wanted to use just Hardy’s poetry as lyrics for the show; but in order to propel the action forward, it was necessary to create some lyrics ourselves. Ian [Finley] helped me with that a great deal, as did Bruce [Benedict] and Jonathan [Fitts].”

Ian Finley adds, “Jude the Obscure has had the luxury of a nearly year-long workshop process, bringing in almost the entire cast to read and sing at three different points, and giving us the chance to adjust the text repeatedly. The changes between the first draft and the rehearsal draft are legion, but are perhaps best exemplified in the fact that the first full draft of both plays together ran over six hours, and the rehearsal draft trimmed that down to about four hours.”

Finley adds, “Jude the Obscure is a classic coming-of-age story, the journey of a young man from the country as he attempts to rise above his station and become a scholar of the university city, Chrisminster. Along the way, love proves an obstacle and a solution as he meets first the earthy Arabella Donn and then his ethereal cousin, Sue Bridehead.

“While the story of the second play is structured as a tragedy,” Finley says, “it is Jude’s attempts to flourish and succeed which motivate the action of the two plays.”

Josh Martin as young Jude Fawley and the Ensemble in Burning Coal Theatre Company's two-part stage adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)

Josh Martin as young Jude Fawley and the Ensemble in Burning Coal Theatre Company's two-part stage adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" (photo by Right Image Photography, Inc.)

When the curtain rises on Jude the Obscure, Part One, says director Jerry Davis, “A young rural lad, Jude Fawley (Josh Martin, then Stephen LeTrent later) in 19th century England is influenced by a teacher, Master Phillotson (Kirby Wahl), to become a scholar. He spends his life working toward that goal, and in pursuit of the young woman, his cousin, Sue Bridehead (Alice Rothman-Hicks), whom he feels is his soul mate.”

In addition to director Jerome Davis and playwright Ian Finley, the creative team for Jude the Obscure, Part One, and Part Two includes assistant directors Robby Lotfy and Josh Benjamin, musical directors Julie Florin and Lawson Taylor, technical director Barry Jaked, set designer Warren Stiles, lighting designer Daniel Winters, costume designer Karen Williams, properties manager Joncie Sarratt, video designer Ernie Gilbert, sound designer Aharon Segal, and stage manager Kim DiPiano. The production also features original music by Bruce Benedict and Jonathan Fitts, with lyrics by Jerome Davis and Thomas Hardy.

Playwright Ian Finley notes, “Jude the Obscure is a very, very large play[, with t]wo parts, 83 characters, over 40 songs and musical interludes. Its very breadth and scope provided the greatest challenges.”

Finley says the show’s set is a “multileveled structure, employing a turntable to facilitate quick, cinematic changes.” He adds, “The set contrasts stone with wood to embody the dichotomy between city and country and artifice and nature that is central to the plot.”

Ian Finley says, “Daniel Winter’s lighting design summons up the quick, evocative changes that are necessary to keep the action moving through the many locations and periods required by the script.”

Director Jerry Davis declares, “[Jude the Obscure] is a positive story, up until the point that it isn’t. The tendency of actors is to ‘play the ending’. This story isn’t a tragedy, until it becomes one. If you play that from the beginning, there is no arc, no character development, and nothing interesting.”

Davis claims, “The audience fell in love with these characters when Hardy wrote them, which is why they were so angry when the book ended as it did. They wanted a different ending, and they clamored for it so hard that Hardy never wrote another novel after this. Of course, Hardy’s ending is the right one, the truthful one; but the society in which he lived wasn’t yet ready for that truth. Are we now?”

Playwright Ian Finley says, “Hopefully, all the information needed to appreciate the story is contained in the script, but audiences may wish to consider the differences between marriage as we understand it now — a fragile oath, shattered by divorce in half of the cases in America — and the ‘iron contract’ of the Victorian era.”

Jerry Davis adds, “[Jude the Obscure] is a play for this time. It questions the value of institutions in our lives, and asks us to move thoughtfully into the future, not with abandon. Also, it’s fun! The music rocks!”

SECOND OPINION: April 14th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/04/14/1999009/burning-coals-ambitious-jude-the.html.

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents JUDE THE OBSCURE, PART ONE at 7:30 p.m. April 12-14, 2 p.m. April 15 and 21, 7:30 p.m. April 26, 2 p.m. April 28, 7:30 p.m. May 3, and 2 p.m. May 5 and JUDE THE OBSCURE, PART TWO at 7:30 p.m. April 19-21, 2 p.m. April 22, 7:30 p.m. April 22-29 and 7:30 p.m. May 4 and 5in Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.

TICKETS: $20 ($15 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except 2 p.m. April 15th pay-what-you-can performance of Jude the Obscure, Part One and 2 p.m. April 22nd pay-what-you-can performance of Jude the Obscure, Part Two, $10 Thursdays, and $5 Student Rush Tickets (sold at the door, 5 minutes before curtain, to students with valid ID).

BOX OFFICE: 919-834-4001, Part One: http://www.etix.com/, or Part Two: http://www.etix.com/.

GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-834-4001.

SHOW:

Part One: http://burningcoal.org/jude-the-obscure-part-1-of-2/.

Part Two: http://burningcoal.org/jude-the-obscure-part-2-of-2/.

VIDEO PREVIEWS: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucYvrtulOcw and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBQjHRnDx5o&feature=relmfu.

SEASON: http://burningcoal.org/season/.

PRESENTER: http://www.burningcoal.org/.

VENUE/DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://burningcoal.org/murphey-school-auditorium/.

NOTE 1: $5 Student Rush Tickets will be sold at the door, 5 minutes before curtain, to students with valid ID.

NOTE 2: At 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 14th, Rosemarie Morgan will speak on “The Critical Response to the Publication of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.” Morgan is the president of the international Thomas Hardy Society (http://www.hardysociety.org/). The lecture is FREE to ticketholders for any performance of Jude the Obscure, Part One and Part Two, and $5 for all others. For details, click http://burningcoal.org/president-of-the-thomas-hardy-association/#more-978.

NOTE 3: There will be two pay-what-you-can performances: one for Jude the Obscure, Part One at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 15th, and the other for Jude the Obscure, Part Two at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 22nd.

NOTE 4: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio describe the 2 p.m. Sunday, April 15th, performance of Jude the Obscure, Part One, and the 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22nd, performance of Jude the Obscure, Part Two.

NOTE 5: At 6 p.m. on Friday, April 20th, prior to the performance of Jude the Obscure, Part Two, playwright Ian Finley, composers Bruce Benedict and Jonathan Fitts, and lyricist Jerome Davis will speak about the creation of a two-part musical adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s great novel. Tickets will be FREE for anyone holding a ticket to any performance of Jude the Obscure, and $5 for all others.

 

OTHER LINKS:

Jude the Obscure (novel): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jude_the_Obscure (Wikipedia).

Jude the Obscure (e-text of the novel): http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/153 (Project Gutenberg).

Thomas Hardy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Hardy (Wikipedia), http://www.hardysociety.org/ (Thomas Hardy Society), and http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~ttha/Welcome/welcomet.htm (Thomas Hardy Association).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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