Composer and writer Paul Gordon's Jane Austen's Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy is most certainly the best new musical that San Diego's Old Globe has hosted in some time. Its commercial prospects, however, may be limited by the desire of Broadway audiences for big, star-enhanced, shows.
Mr. Gordon, whose Jane Eyre suggested an affinity for this literary period, has been performing Jane Austen's Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy in prestigious regional theatres since 2007. San Diego's Old Globe is the fourth stop on a circuit that has included the San Francisco Bay area, Cincinnati and St. Louis. His book is relatively faithful to the 1815 novel, and his lush, romantic, score features at least two songs, "Home" and the title number, that have a good chance of entering the musical theatre canon.
But he's been beaten to the punch by a 1990s film craze for using Jane Austen as source material, and Emma has already been made as a period piece starring Gwyneth Paltrow and translated to contemporary times (Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone). Emma may have been the prototype romantic comedy, but that means the audience can figure out the plot as soon as the characters are introduced. The couple who hate each other will end up in love, the beautiful people will get together, and ugly duckling will transform into a swan through the ardor of her true love, and the idea of romantic fantasies will be challenged by a story that ends up caving in to those same fantasies.
If the audience can figure out the plot, then the only pleasures it can take are to identify with the characters or enjoy the music. Mr. Gordon's adaptation of Ms. Austen's story portrays the title character as egotistical and deluded beyond belief in act one. On the other hand, everyone else in her quaint British town is that way, too. By act two, the characters will become more endearing and the audience will come on board, but it takes a while for this process to happen. The music is quite lovely, but with a couple of exceptions it doesn't stand on its own.
Director Jeff Calhoun is hot right now, particularly since his Bonnie & Clyde has announced a Broadway opening after playing engagements here and in Florida. His Emma is clever, smart, cute, and perfectly cast (I've rarely seen an entire company embody their individual parts as well as this one). He's aided by a very clever set (designed by Tobin Ost) that relies on a turntable to keep the many scene changes from dragging down the pace, lovely period costumes (designed by Denitsa Bliznakova) and colorful lighting (designed by Michael Gilliam).
As Emma, Ms. Murin is sassy, tart, and full-voiced. In her hands Emma becomes a recognizably modern young woman without losing the period trappings. Adam Monley makes Mr. Knightley, Emma's neighbor who's always at her house drinking brandy and telling truth, a kind of young Henry Higgins. Dani Marcus takes the ugly duckling and evolves her bit by bit into a swan (Mr. Calhoun's direction helps here in particular). Will Reynolds plays Emma's object of infatuation with just enough slyness to tip the plot twists but without the kind of affectation that would throw this character out of balance. Supporting cast members Adam Daveline, Richert Easley, Suzanne Grodner, Brian Herndon, Kelly Hutchinson, Amanda Naughton, Don Noble and Allison Spratt Pearce all perform admirably.
It's a shame that there appears to be no room Off-Broadway for a profitable run of a lovely chamber musical such as this one. With any luck, maybe this Old Globe production could lead to one by a subscription-based company such as Lincoln Center Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, or Roundabout. This one's too good to let die, but as long as audiences only buy stars and spectacle it's not a winning proposition.
The Old Globe presents Jane Austen's Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy, book, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, and directed by Jeff Calhoun. The cast includes Adam Daveline (Robert Martin), Richert Easley (Mr. Woodhouse), Suzanne Grodner (Miss Bates), Kelly Hutchinson (Mrs. Bates, Mrs. Elton), Brian Herndon (Mr. Elton), Dani Marcus (Harriet Smith), Adam Monley (Mr. Knightley), Patti Murin (Emma Woodhouse), Amanda Naughton (Mrs. Weston), Don Noble (Mr. Weston), Allison Spratt Pearce (Jane Fairfax) and Will Reynolds (Frank Churchill). The creative team includes: Tobin Ost (Scenic Design), Denitsa Bliznakova (Costume Design), Michael Gilliam (Lighting Design), John H. Shivers and David Patridge (Sound Design), Brad Haak (Music Supervisor), Laura Bergquist (Music Director) and Thomas J. Gates (Stage Manager).
Performs through March 6 at the Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets ($39-94) are available at the box office, by phone at (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623], or online at The Old Globe's website.
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