Emma Rice’s jokey, sprawling musical adaptation of “Wuthering Heights” that opens tonight at St. Ann’s Warehouse might befuddle anyone who associates the title with the 1939 movie. Laurence Olivier starred as dark, brooding Heathcliff bent on revenge due to a broken heart, caused by Merle Oberon as dramatically lit Cathy, who always loved Heathcliff, even when he was a poor orphan, but married David Niven as posh Edgar instead.
That swoon-worthy movie directed by William Wyler with a screenplay by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, adapts only half of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, cutting out many characters, changing details; streamlining the story to its gothic romantic essence.
In her stage adaptation,Emma Rice more or less restores Brontë’s profusion (and confusion) of characters and multigenerational (convoluted) plot. But at the same time, she completely changes the tone that dominates the book, as well as its many previous adaptations. The “Wuthering Heights” at St. Ann’s Warehouse is an enjoyable exercise in story theater, with puppetry and parody, song and dance, rock ‘n roll.
The Moors of Yorkshire is no longer a place; it’s a chorus. The Moors have a leader (Nandi Bhebhe), who wears a crown of underbrush, and serves as the narrator of the tale (instead of the characters Mr. Lockwood and the housekeeper Nelly Dean in the novel.) She also acts as confidant and advisor to the characters, especially Heathcliff.
Liam Tamne’s Heathcliff still smolders, but Lucy McCormick’s Catherine rocks, backed by a five-piece band.
The tone is established from the opening scene. When the stranger Mr. Lockwood (Sam Acher) makes his way through a snowstorm to the gloomy and inhospitable occupants of Wuthering Heights, he’s athletically thrown around by the wind, and repeatedly attacked by a puppet-dog that looks like a cross between a snake and a vacuum cleaner. It’s funny and clever shtick, and, as it turns out, characteristic of the production’s impish theatricality.
These entertaining moments lighten a show with a three-hour running time. But they also made it more difficult for me to lose myself in the dark love story. In Rice’s one foray on Broadway, the 2010 production of “Brief Encounter,” her extremely clever stage adaptation of the 1945 David Lean film of the same name, she was able to pull off all sorts of theatrical tricks (seamlessly melding live action and video, for example) while keeping us engaged in the sad romantic story that it told. But “Wuthering Heights” has a much more complicated plot. The lovers themselves now get somewhat lost amid all the other characters, portrayed by the dozen cast members who perform up to three roles apiece. The production acknowledges how overwhelming this is, making it part of its shtick: Many of the actors carried chalkboards scrawled with their characters’ names. But of course that added to the jokey tone.
A more recent reader of the novel would probably have found this adaptation easier to follow and thus be less distracted by the tonal shift. But to me, engaging in the story given all the noise of the production (much of it delightful) felt analogous to trying to have a serious conversation at a party that’s too loud and too crowded (even if the music has a great beat, and the crowd is good-looking.)
To be fair, I asked myself: Would a straight gothic approach even have worked on a New York stage in our age of irony? Maybe the reason why I treasure the 1939 movie is exactly because it was made before I was born, a different era, and so I can excuse the ludicrously dark world it creates (and forgive myself for enjoying it.) But then I remembered: “Sweeney Todd.”
St Ann’s Warehouse through November 6, 2022
Running time: Three hours including an intermission
Tickets: $59 – $74
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice based on the novel by Emily Brontë
Composed by Ian Ross, set and costume design by Vicki Mortimer, sound and video designby Simon Baker, lighting design by Jai Morjaria, movement director and choreographer Etta Murfitt, puppetry director John Leader, fight director Kev Mccurdy, music Director Pat Moran
Lockwood / Edgar Linton / The Moors: Sam Archer
The Leader of The Yorkshire Moors: Nandi Bhebhe
The Moors: Katy Ellis
Swing: Stephanie Elstob
Dr. Kenneth / The Moors: TJ Holmes
Mr. Earnshaw / The Moors: Lloyd Gorman
Zillah / The Moors: Jordan Laviniere
Catherine: Lucy McCormick
Isabella Linton / Little Linton / The Moors: Katy Owen
Hindley Earnshaw / Hareton Earnshaw / The Moors: Tama Phethean
Heathcliff: Liam Tamne
Frances Earnshaw / Young Cathy / The Moors: Eleanor Sutton
Band: Sid Goldsmith, Pat Moran (Music Director), Jeevan Singh
with Lloyd Gorman, TJ Holmes