"...This is a Butterfly of a Musical!"
The resplendent musical adaptation of "Jane Austen’s Emma, The Musical" that's currently performing on the Cripe Stage, directed by Casey Long, almost certainly won't conform to those burnished ideas of the 1816 English novel that Austen acolytes cherish. This is a buoyant, very well-made new musical adapted from the novel in 2007 that succeeds on its own spry terms, and is playing to sell-out crowds through December 23rd at the official resident theater of Anaheim – Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken theater arts Center.
In his clean-lined book, Paul Gordon finds an assured language for his transformation from one medium to another. This transformation is more so a candid rebirth of Austen’s satire and romance from page to stage by an accomplished musical theater artist whose previous credits include the 2000 Broadway adaptation of “Jane Eyre,” a 2011 Ovation award for music and lyrics to “Daddy Long Legs,” and a 2015 Jeff award for his score and libretto in “Sense and Sensibility.” What results is an "Emma" that pays fresh tribute to its source by clearly pursuing its own theatrical purposes.
“Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." Jane Austen never wrote those words, but she proves them conclusively in this, her comedy of manners masterpiece. With this lively adaptation, she seems to step on stage herself to shepherd her delightful characters through the pitfalls and surprises that await them. Emma Woodhouse (Mandy Foster), who is "handsome, clever, and rich" attempts to play the part of the matchmaker, and nearly misses out on true love herself. Instantly we learn who she is, that things aren’t what they seem, and that Emma’s about to become acquainted with trouble. By the end of the first scene, we surmise that the trouble will be of her own making, as everybody’s favorite Regency-period yenta embarks on a series of misguided adventures.
The story unfolds in and around the rural village of Highbury—a fictional site just south of London. Witty, ambitious and altogether charming, Emma has never learned to follow anybody’s guidance but her own. She lives with her hypochondriacal father—fond of gruel, terrified of drafts, hating change—on a small estate dwarfed by nearby Donwell Abbey, whose owner is the forthright family friend and in-law, Mr. Knightley (Jeff Lowe), brother of John Knightley, the barrister husband of Emma’s sister, Isabella. Interestingly enough, Emma’s pretty sure that she herself sets the town’s standards. After all, she does manage its social calendar. And her determination to "raise" her lowly born friend, Harriet Smith (Zoya Martin), into good society demonstrates confidence in her ability to re-write the books of Highbury etiquette. Trouble is, no one knows Harriet’s parents (very important during the 1800s).
At the supposed age of seventeen, Harriet is the star pupil of Mrs. Goddard’s academy. Unfortunately, although she’s pretty and humble, she is completely without imagination. She loves Emma like a little puppy loves its mother, but seems unable to think a full thought or finish a full sentence. Luckily, she has Emma to do both for her, like a puppet on a string.
And if "Who’s Going to Marry Harriet?" were a gameshow, Mr. Elton, the vicar, played by Coleton Ray, would be contestant #1. Just don’t tell him that. Because he’s convinced that he will marry Emma. After all, he’s handsome enough, young, unmarried and initially well mannered. He’s also well-versed on all the pick-up lines of the day – even the rhyming ones. Remember his riddle? Despite his smooth talking and boyish charm, though, Mr. Elton doesn’t want Harriet but yet can’t manage to win Emma’s heart. He runs off to lick his wounds, then displays his mercenary nature by quickly marrying another woman of lesser means. Augusta Elton, formerly Miss Hawkins, is now Mr. Elton’s new wife (Carlene O’Neill). A chattering, scheming, ruthless social climber that she is, she becomes the dominant force in the union, with Mr. Elton fawning at her every whim.
Emma also manages to convince Harriet to refuse the one man who actually seems to love her for who she is – silliness and all. That would be Robert Martin (Kristofer Buxton), the farmer, who fell in love with Harriet the previous summer – so much, in fact, that he named one of his cows after her. And that’s saying something. She’s also terrified that Mr. Martin’s proposal might not be quite the thing because, well, it’s so…short. Never mind the fact that it’s well-written and honest and shows how much he loves her. Or that she happens to love Mr. Martin too. But luckily, as soon as Emma and Mr. Knightley get engaged (much later in the story), Harriet and Robert seem to find each other as if by magic.
Then there’s Frank Churchill (Gavin Cole). The entire town knows all about him. "Mr. Frank Churchill was one of the boasts of Highbury, and a lively curiosity to see him prevailed, though the compliment was so little returned that he had never been there in his life."
Wait…he’s never even been to Highbury? So how does everybody know so much about him? Well, that’s one of Austen’s brilliant moves. She uses Frank to emphasize how important gossip can be in a small town. And if he’s perfect, why does Emma immediately think that he’s not quite as wonderful as she imagined him to be? Perhaps Frank seems less than ideal because he’s totally dependent on his aunt for cash and can’t be bothered to work on his own. Or maybe it’s because he drives sixteen miles (back then a whole day on horseback) to get a haircut. Or maybe it’s because, Frank is actually a lot like…Emma. Which makes you wonder why Emma is so likeable, doesn’t it?
As for Jane Fairfax (Megan McCarthy), Churchill and Jane are secretly engaged when she arrives in Highbury – but Jane doesn’t tell anyone about their love, even when Emma seems to be stealing her Frank from under Jane’s nose. Orphaned when she was young, Jane has become very good at taking care of herself. She sings, plays the piano, sews, and is about to start teaching – in other words, she does just about everything that a woman could do in her time, and all really, really well. In fact, Emma hates her at first because she’s just too good at everything! Mr. Knightley, however, thinks she’s just about perfect.
Speaking of Mr. Knightley, why is he so easy to like? Well, Donwell Abbey happens to be the largest and most prosperous estate in Highbury, which makes Mr. Knightley something like its king. Perhaps this is why Knightley finds himself attracted to Emma. After all, everyone likes a challenge, right? At 37, he’s exactly sixteen years older than Emma. He’s constantly pushing the boundaries of what he knows to be Emma’s respect for him, and always manages to warn her of potential social improprieties. The whole brother-sister relationship they have going seems to have dissolved somewhere during the course of the show, but it finally hits Mr. Knightley like a load of bricks that he’s actually in love with Emma when he realizes that Frank Churchill might be his rival.
The acting by all cast members in this show is truly superior to a fault. Ms. Foster exudes such can't-stop confidence as Emma that the many shadings of her character she projects in this very big role is overshadowed with simply an uncanny performance. Remarkable, mind-bending voices blend effortlessly in all the company numbers with true professional quality. I did not hear one note waver throughout the performance.
Glenn Koppel’s authentic role of crotchety old Mr. Woodhouse is very special, Shannon Page plays Miss Bates, the object of Emma’s insulting remarks, and the hard of hearing Mrs. Bates is portrayed by Sherry Domerego. Mrs. Weston, mother-figure and governess for Emma is Lulu Mack. And the easy-going Mr. Weston, a former military man, is played by Robin Walton.
Gordon’s ingratiating score is really extraordinary with an abundance of memorable melodies. The ensemble number, "Relations" seemed to invoke echoes of "Tradition" from "Fiddler on the Roof." And, the manipulated and warmhearted Harriet, a figure of commiserate humor in the story, has a twice-reprised comic spin on the song, "Humiliation." Some are ardently lyrical (Mr. Knightley's impassioned "Emma"); others are sweetly comic (Harriet's reverent love hymn, "Mr. Robert Martin”).
Then there is his Sondheimian mode, where the composer musicalizes more complex emotional states, such as disappointment ("Badly Done") and emotional detachment and self-deception ("This Is How Love Feels"). Another smart number for Emma, "Should We Ever Meet," both embellishes the distorting nature of reputation while at the same time produces a sly hint of plot foreshadowing. When Gordon exploits the expressive ensembles in his music, we see characters confronting, evading and unifying in duets, trios and larger combinations, summoning motifs and chorales that shimmer in layers of unbelievable sound. A single piano, blending perfectly in the scenery, supplies the light-fingered support by Musical Director Bill Strongin.
The production values at this theatre are always first-rate, from Masako Tobaru’s Production Design to precision-timed Projections by Kristin Campbell to Ryan Brodkin’s perfect Sound Design. With Stage Management by Jordan Jones and Dramaturg duties by Laurie Smits Staude, Bruce Goodrich, Costume Designer, deserves much admiration for being able to duplicate Napoleonic period costumes for the whole cast. The costumes were stunning. Most of the ladies were decked out in simple smocks or ladies day dresses, and upper class, the popular hand-sewn opulent gowns representing the Georgian age. The men personified traditional wardrobe staples of that day when dandified men wore elegant frock coats, waist coats, or short-fronted tailcoats over white linen shirts, with tight-fitting pantaloons, Hessian boots, and sometimes a tall, beaver hat.
Director Long has just the right light touch, never forgetting this is a butterfly of a musical, not a grounded caterpillar. He infuses it with humor, heart, and a sly, gossip-tinged flavor and the result is divine. Always divine, if the novel is by Jane Austen. You just revel in the brilliance of the characterizations, the witty dialogue and satirical observations, and the pleasures of a plot fueled by gossip, misunderstanding, mystery, and romance. Even the most skeptical audience member would have to work hard not to be emotionally affected, impressed and entertained by this wonderful rendering offered now at the Chance.
Rush to get your tickets now at https://chancetheater.com/production/emma/
Tonight’s performance is at 7:30pm with most performances Thursday through Sunday until December 23rd. This show is Highly Recommended!