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Theater review: 'Jane Austen's Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy' at the Old Globe

January 24, 2011 |  6:15 pm

Emma 1 
There’s something so inherently agreeable about the novels of Jane Austen that the works are almost above criticism. The harshest thing one could say about these sharply observed romantic fairy tales, which have been steadily increasing their cult following since their early 19th century debut, is that they are faultless despite their faults.
 
This is indeed the praise the title character of “Emma” receives from the man she’s appropriately united with at the end of the book.

Paul Gordon’s “Jane Austen’s Emma — A Musical Romantic Comedy,” which opened Sunday at the Old Globe, doesn’t inspire the same leniency. If this were an illustrated edition, one would have to overlook quite a bit of obvious hackwork. Yet Austen’s brand of elevated chick lit still manages to cast its merry spell. This is a cartoon version of the English village the author thoroughly mapped out, but it won’t take much effort for many in the audience to get lost in its gossipy world. 

Patti Murin brings an indefatigable perkiness to the part of mischief-making Emma, the youngest daughter of Mr. Woodhouse (Richert Easley), a widowed gentleman who holds his domestic routine sacred. This spoiled young creature is beside herself with monotony after her beloved governess has departed to become Mrs. Weston (Amanda Naughton), leaving her alone in a rambling house with a slightly crotchety older man, no female companionship and way too much time on her hands.

Emma 2 Naturally, Emma decides to entertain herself by indulging in her favorite pastime: matchmaking. She takes a liking to a slightly plump, rosy cheeked girl of uncertain parentage named Harriet Smith (Dani Marcus) and is determined to find a suitable husband for her. Suitable, it should be noted, means that the man in question meets all of Emma’s snooty requirements; Harriet’s concerns are more or less immaterial.

Mr. Knightley (Adam Monley), a dashing neighbor whose brother married Emma’s sister and who has become part of the Woodhouse family, sees through Emma’s narcissistic game. He’s concerned because a decent farmer on his property, Robert Martin (Adam Daveline), is madly in love with Harriet, who would happily return the feeling if Emma didn’t frown on his social standing. Knightley warns the little schemer about the harm she may be causing, but her amorous web winds up ensnaring him along with a few other marriageable characters, herself among them.

The labyrinthine plot is literalized onstage in the form of a hedge maze, which serves as a verdant background for Tobin Ost’s decorously spare set. Austen specialized in delayed happy endings, and the production, directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun, lends the shenanigans a racing tempo, with characters rotating in and out on chairs. The frenetic energy keeps things lively but undercuts the emotional stakes.

Gordon, a songwriter with a penchant for period musicals, as his Tony-nominated “Jane Eyre” and his more recent “Daddy Long Legs” attest, takes a straightforward — almost no-nonsense — approach to the task of adapting “Emma.” His book offers a shorthand version of the novel, as it must. But the abridgment plays at times like a summary, with Emma filling us in on the missing bits to save time.

The score too has a utilitarian quality. Songs are pounded out on the orchestra’s keyboard, like a secretary typing up invoices. There’s some good work — “Emma,” Mr. Knightley’s confession of love, has a genuine ardency — but the thinness of some of the numbers lends an impression of haste.

The acting style of the company is broad, leaning more toward sitcom than Masterpiece Theatre. Austen wrote comedy, but the scenes she imagined were far too crammed with life to devolve into shtick. Calhoun appears to have encouraged his actors to get a rise out of the audience. The laughter, as a result, is often of the staler variety.

Generally speaking, the women fare better than the men. Allison Spratt Pearce, who plays Jane Fairfax, an attractive visitor to the town, has one hilarious bit in which her all-around competence momentarily leaves Emma in the dust. Marcus’ Harriet, by contrast, wins chuckles by showing off her flamboyant ineptitude. Too bad their male love interests all seem so negligible.

Not even Knightley comes across as such a prize. Monley has a handsome voice, but his characterization is less assured. Next to Murin’s sparkplug Emma, he seems passive and maybe even a tad depressed.  But then it’s not easy to compete with such relentless vivacity. 

And speaking of relentless, who can keep up with the Austen onslaught?  I missed Keira Knightley in "Pride & Prejudice" and have taken a pass on all the recent miniseries imports. After “Clueless” (the ingenious “Emma” movie update that would probably make an even better musical) and Roger Michell's brilliant film of “Persuasion” with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds, I was content to satisfy my cravings with the novels themselves.

This clean but not particularly imaginative theatricalization of “Emma” is of a secondary nature in every sense. But for those who’d rather not expend much effort in getting their Austen fix, the show will do in a pinch. 

— Charles McNulty
 
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"Jane Austen’s Emma — A Musical Romantic Comedy," Old Globe, Balboa Park, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends March 6. $39 to $94. (619) 234-5623. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Photos: Top: Richert Easley, left, Patti Murin and Adam Monley. Bottom: Monley and Murin. Credit: Henry DiRocco.

 

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