Arizona Theatre Company
Amiable tunes, fine performances showcased in 'Jane Austen’s Emma'
Even if you're not fanatic about all things Austen, there’s much to enjoy about this musical
We continue to love being in love with Jane Austen.
The early 19th century English author, whose six novels are viewed as the apotheosis of late Georgian era literature, has much grown in our affections and, indeed, proliferated into her own industry of related media. Now in addition to the multiple film/TV versions of her slim oeuvre, we can add the musical, “Jane Austen’s Emma.”
Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “Jane Austen’s Emma” is a pleasant confection, with excellent performances, especially by Disney TV’s Anneliese van der Pol in the title role.
The show marks the rapid return to ATC by author/composer/playwright Paul Gordon. Gordon also authored the anodyne musical “Daddy Long Legs,” presented by ATC last holiday season. Working single-handedly here, he supplies book, music and lyrics based on Austen’s 1815 novel.
The world revolves around her
The plot for “Emma” is more convoluted than complex. Young Emma Woodhouse (van der Pol) is a naïve girl of little worldly experience whose overconfidence in her nascent matchmaking abilities leads her to constant meddling.
Described by Austen as “handsome, clever, and rich,” she is also utterly self-centered. To quote Austen from the novel: “The real evils indeed of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself…. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.”
Indulged by her doddering father (played by Robert Easley), Emma sets about to shape life around her as she sees best, as noted in the opening song, “I Design the World.”
Watching with amusement and tolerance from the neighboring estate is George Knightley (Shannon Stoeke), whose brother is married to Emma’s older sister.
Following the blush of initial success in her machinations for her governess, Mrs. Weston (“I Made The Match Myself”), Emma sets up a cottage industry in matchmaking for her village of Highbury. Where others would see friends, she sees projects, as with Harriet, a girl of no social standing. Emma tries to set up Harriet with Mr. Elton, the local vicar. He aspires higher, however, aiming for Emma, even as Emma puts the kibosh on a perfectly good marriage proposal for Harriet by farmer Robert Martin.
Added to the mix are neighbors Miss Bates, her elderly mother, Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates’ talented and pretty niece, Jane Fairfax, who Emma sees as her nemesis. We also are introduced to Mrs. Weston’s handsome new son-in-law, Frank Churchill, and the Vicar’s new nouveau riche wife, the gaudy Mrs. Elton. The major plot points of the story are all covered – the insult to Miss Bates, the insufferable Mrs. Elton who mirrors Emma’s self-satisfaction, and Emma’s Grand Ball where Mr. Elton insults Harriet, followed by Mr. Knightley’s noble response.
In the end, despite her flaws, Emma finds an honest and true mate in Mr. Knightley, even as Harriet accepts Mr. Martin’s second proposal and we discover that Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill were paired all along. Finale, curtain.
Some characters reduced to cameos
The 13 different characters are adroitly handled by Gordon, introduced in the opening and again as they become relevant to the story. The narrative is exquisitely clear and faithful to the spirit and events of the original, though by nature some ellipsis occurs. For example we don't get the character back stories or descriptive details that immerse us so deeply in Austen’s milieu. The multitude of characters means that some roles are little more than cameos, allowing the talented individuals of the cast to shine only briefly.
In many ways, “Jane Austen’s Emma” is a tuneful Cliff’s Notes version for those wishing to avoid actually reading the entire 55 chapters of early 19th century prose that constitute the novel, which is available for free online.
The 31 musical numbers, including reprises, are pleasant, though not necessarily memorable. They were functional in carrying the narrative forward while evoking the Georgian period with 19th century syntax and vocabulary. One song that did work on a noticeably higher level was "Humiliation," sung by Harriet at the ball and then again when Harriet throws it at Emma in a reprise.
A most winning performance
Although the entire cast is delightful and a quantum level beyond good, Anneliesse van der Pol is a testament to the heightened quality of performers that are de rigueur in the entertainment industry today. Her credits include co-starring in the Disney TV series “That’s So Raven,” as well as playing Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway.
Van der Pol brought a self-confidence and gravitas that embodied Emma’s force of personality without seeming aggressive or excessively obnoxious. She is so cute and pouty that you want to like her even when her character is being an absolute twit. Her singing, as expected, was wonderful, full and committed, and her little puppeteer gestures in the choreography were a perfect grace note.
Also notable was Dani Marcus as Harriet. It takes some talent to exude plainness onstage while starring in a musical, but Marcus did just that, providing a humble contrast to van der Pol’s expansiveness. Her musical contributions, especially in “Humiliation” and her duets with van der Pol (“Not In a Thousand Years,” “Mr. Robert Martin,” “The Epiphany”) were all high points.
Both Shannon Stoeke as George Knightley and Colin Hanlon as Frank Churchill will make you swoon for the robust gentlemen of a long lost era. The male roles in “Emma” are somewhat circumscribed, so neither had the opportunity to shine as brightly as did van der Pol, but they sounded and looked quite good.
Robert Easley gave scene stealing performances in the small role of Emma’s befuddled father, Mr. Woodhouse. Jill Van Velzer was also notable in a dual role as both the elderly comic Mrs. Bates and the insufferable Mrs. Elton.
A clutch of Wildcats in the mix
And how about a shout-out to the four University of Arizona students in the ensemble? Kelsey Anne Johnson, Chris Karl, Sammie Lideen and Michael Schauble have all been noticed previously in prominent roles as members of UA’s Arizona Repertory Theatre. Although they mostly function here as stage hands to move props around (with the usual adroitness and nonchalance of ACT’s scene transitions), hey, they’re practicing their craft and getting paid.
“Jane Austen’s Emma” is not a groundbreaking musical, nor should it be construed as an alternative to the experience of actually reading the novel. It is a faithfully conceived, well-staged version that allows us view the story through a modern prism, in a way similar to the 1995 movie, “Clueless,” which shares the same source material. Especially if you’re burned out on the season’s Nutcrackers, Messiahs and Scrooges, “Jane Austen’s Emma” offers a viable live entertainment alternative. Even if you are not a Janeite, fanatic about all things Austen, there’s much to enjoy about this musical version of “Emma.”