“Emma,” Jane Austen’s sparkling, perceptive comedy of manners, is known to today’s audiences thanks primarily to a ’90s Hollywood film and various stage versions.
Up until now, “Jane Austen’s Emma: The Musical,” Paul Gordon’s 2007 stage adaptation of the 1815 novel, has never been produced in the Orange County-Los Angeles area. It premiered in northern California, and has been produced in San Diego, but not locally – curious in that it requires just a modest-sized cast and, at bare minimum, a piano to carry the score.
A new production by Chance Theater, the show’s regional premiere, remedies that.
Impeccable in every respect, Chance Theater’s staging brims with effervescence and wit. With a solid cast of 13, skilled direction from Casey Long, and design elements that complement the nature and themes of the novel, it’s all fans of Austen’s work could hope for.
This type of show, incidentally, is right up Chance’s alley. At Christmastime, the Anaheim Hills company has offered “Anne of Green Gables,” “Little Women: The Broadway Musical,” or “The Secret Garden, The Musical” as part of its Holiday Literature Series. With this outstanding version of “Emma,” Chance now has a fourth show to add to the rotation.
We’re in Highbury in 1813, a serene fictional village on the outskirts of London whose residents rely upon letters from relatives to keep them informed as to the most current news.
The multiple, criss-crossing love stories of well-heeled Brits during the Regency era (1811 to 1820) are played out lightheartedly, placing their foibles and flaws on display.
The story’s focus is Emma Woodhouse (Mandy Foster), a young social butterfly who constantly toys with the affections of others for her own amusement – ostensibly to be helpful, do good and bring others happiness. In reality, though, she’s clueless as to the true feelings of those around her – not to mention her own.
Taking credit for the recent marriage of her former governess, Emma now fancies herself a romantic matchmaker. Disputing this dubious claim is Mr. George Knightley (Jeff Lowe), a neighbor and longtime family friend whose brother is married to Emma’s older sister.
Acquainted for most of their lives, Emma and her sister’s brother-in-law have an unusual friendship: Unfailingly blunt with Emma, he speaks the truth to her in all matters, even if it involves criticizing her vanity and arrogance or cautioning her to “stop interfering” in the lives of others.
For her part, Emma sees Mr. Knightley as “all intellect and poise” but lacking any feelings, yet enjoys her friendship and verbal sparring with this smart, mature, level-headed gent.
Romantically, Emma becomes attracted to the younger, more elegant, more polished Frank Churchill (Gavin Cole) while throwing glistening daggers at the charming and beautiful yet modest Jane Fairfax (Megan McCarthy).
Emma and Mr. Knightley have spent their lifetimes on the sidelines of matrimony, using the romances of others as a kind of spectator sport. Are we the only ones who see their teasing banter as proof positive they’re kindred romantic spirits?
At Chance, the tongue-in-cheek tone of the story and its characters is heightened by the spot-on mannerisms and accents of Long’s superb cast, led by Foster and Lowe’s sterling yet potent performances.
Foster’s lilting vocals elevate her songs, notably “Should We Ever Meet,” Emma’s swooning reverie about Frank Churchill. As exquisitely nuanced is Lowe’s vocal work, which sends the lovely ballad “Emma” soaring.
It’s obvious that Emma’s younger friend Harriet (Zoya Martin) and the charmingly tongue-tied Robert Martin (Kristofer Buxton) are mutually gaga, and their scenes are played as genuinely sweet.
McCarthy’s Jane is shy and soft-spoken. Cole’s Frank has a gentle exterior and, in song, a soft tenor – traits that belie the character’s shallow nature. Shannon Page is aptly earnest and loquacious as Jane’s bubbly aunt, Miss Bates, and Long gets terrific work up and down the line – notably from Coleton Ray as fortune-hunting vicar Mr. Elton, Carlene O’Neill as his gauche new wife, and Glenn Koppel as Emma’s sweetly doddering old dad.
Musical director Bill Strongin’s onstage piano-playing provides Chance’s cast a solid foundation throughout, admirably bolstering a weak score that exists primarily in the service of Gordon’s inventive, first-rate lyrics. Every bit as good is Gordon’s book, carefully laying the groundwork for Mr. Knightley’s and Emma’s late-play epiphanies of mutual love.
Masako Tobaru’s production design wisely keeps things simple, its raked focal platform surrounded by oversized pages from Austen’s novel, a stylistic device carried over from Chance’s other holiday literature stories. Giving a palpable sense of time and place are Kristin Campbell’s lovely upstage/background projections, which resemble watercolor-washed pen-and-ink drawings.
Gordon has specialized in adapting classic romantic literary works for the musical stage, including Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” (1995), Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” (2015) and, more recently, Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” So for Austen fans, Chance Theater’s flawless “Emma” is a must-see.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].