Film and TV actress Keke Palmer made headlines three weeks ago when she became the first African-American Cinderella on Broadway in “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” But you don’t have to go to New York City to witness that kind of unique, outside the box casting. After all, Sinclair Community College’s wonderfully charming production of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” takes a similarly non-traditional approach that allows the classic tale to refreshingly breathe anew.
Elegantly directed with beautifully fluid transitions by Kimberly Borst, “Pride and Prejudice,” breezily adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan, brings the lovely Ariqa Bowens and handsome Shaun Diggs to the thoroughly engaging forefront as prickly adversaries-turned-lovers Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. As Austen’s enlightening study of class, manners, privilege, and romance transpires, Bowens and Diggs delicately convey the cool repartee required to sell the complexity of their iconic roles. Bowens, graceful and intuitive in her breakthrough performance, particularly shines during Elizabeth and Darcy’s first awkward dance (which Borst astutely heightens by freezing the world around them) as well as Elizabeth’s late evening showdown with Darcy’s haughty, imposing aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh (a perfectly stern and conceited Anna Sheldon). Diggs, the brooding epitome of male detachment, effectively softens Darcy’s aloof heart as he grows to care for and adore the incredibly headstrong Elizabeth.
In addition to the aforementioned Stern, Bowens and Diggs are strongly supported by the particularly appealing contributions of the marvelously understated Charles Larkowksi as the kindly Mr. Bennet, the delightful Kate Gieselman as meddling Mrs. Bennet, the sweet and sensitive Cassidy Rowley as Jane Bennet, Jasmine Barrett as the reserved Mary Bennet, Degreona Herrod as the humorously overlooked Kitty Bennet, the spiritedly perky Hayley Penchoff as Lydia Bennet, the amiable Woody Hieb as Mr. Bingley, the dynamically icy Ashlee Ferrell as Caroline Bingley, the magnetic Kevin Manley as Mr. Wickham, CJ Suchyta as Sir William Lucas, Natalie Sanders as Lady Lucas, and the scene-stealing Austin DeVaughn who reinterprets minister Mr. Collins with a comical outspokenness and a deliberately passionate cadence steeped in the traditions of the African-American church. The fine cast also features Aeriel Aniballi (Mrs. Reynolds),Matt Poliachik (Ensign Denny) , David Brandt (Fitzwilliam), James Butler (Servant), Greyson Calvert (Servant), Rebecca Henry (Servant), Jesse MaGill (Captain Carter), Kira Miller (Mrs. Gardiner), Leah Mikesell (Georgiana Darcy), Andre Tomlinson (Servant), Ella Wylie (Anne de Bourgh), and Jessica Zula (Charlotte Lucas).
Austen’s world is exquisitely realized from a design standpoint by Chris Harmon’s stunning estate set (one of his finest creations) featuring nearly 20 portraits, Kathleen Hotmer’s attractive period costumes, Michelle Sampson’s first-rate wig and hair creations, Jennifer Kramer’s properties, and Daniel Brunk’s evocative lighting and sound.
“Pride and Prejudice” purists will have qualms with Sinclair’s showcase which unabashedly takes liberties with the authenticity of early 19th century England. Even so, the inclusive magic of theater proves its rejuvenating worth nonetheless in one of the best and most enjoyable productions I have seen at Sinclair.
“Pride and Prejudice” continues through Oct. 4 at Sinclair Community College, Blair Hall Theatre, Building 2, 444 W. Third St., Dayton. Performances are Wednesday at 10 a.m., Thursday at 7 p.m., and Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Act One: 80 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. All Thursday tickets (Downtown Dayton Thursday Night) cost an additional $10 each and include pre-show county picnic buffet dinner beginning at 5:30 p.m. For tickets or more information, call (937) 512-2808 or visit www.sinclair.edu/tickets.