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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

"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.


Comments () | Archives (3)

How can you call an adaptation "not particularly imaginative"? Were they supposed to reinvent the wheel? It's an ADAPTATION. An attempt to bring the novel to life in musical form. I think an acting style that leaned towards Masterpiece Theatre (as you called it) would have been a dull show to watch indeed. Perhaps some of the characterizations were not period correct, but then period correct would not have made for a very entertaining musical theater experience.
You said that the book "offers a shorthand version of the novel, as it must", but the story is in the music. The book may be sparse (although still very true to the novel with many pieces of dialogue coming straight from Jane Austen herself) but the real character and points of interest are found in the songs. Why shouldn't a MUSICAL have the best bits in the MUSIC? So what if Emma introduces herself and catches the audience up on a few tidbits while the set rotates?
I must also disagree with your opinion of the score. I recently posted online to some friends today about the show: "The music is just... perfect. Light, funny, sometimes surprising, tender, soaring... all of it felt just so RIGHT in every moment." I could not have been more surprised at your calling it "utilitarian".
I did not hear any "stale" laughter at the two performances I attended (one in previews, one opening night). Indeed, I was surprised at the heartiness of the laughter coming from the rest of the audience and thought it very genuine. During the opening night performance I tried to remember whether there was that much laughter during the other preview show I attended. The comedic moments were very well placed and not forced at all in my opinion, except perhaps for the SNL-type characterization of Mrs. Elton.
I am curious as to what you expected from Mr. Knightly? I certainly did not interpret Adam Monley's characterization as "passive" or "depressed"; I thought he did an excellent job of highlighting the difference in their dispositions and age without being stuffy or snobby.
I liked the show enough to see it twice while I was visiting a friend in San Diego, and would recommend it to anyone as a very delightful piece of musical theater.

Mr.Gordon has done an absolutely superb job of adapting this novel. Even lovers of Jane Austen will admit that her language and syntax are not without fault. Mr.Gordon has managed to make the novel sing and that is no easy task. Any brave soul who embarks on a musical journey with a classic piece of literature must be keenly aware of the necessity of "hackwork." There simply is no perfect way to edit the original text. The composer/lyricist must, by the process of elimination, make informed decisions as to what can and should be included. Mr.Gordon succeeds in this endeavor because he has a respect for the text itself, not just the story that is told through the text. The brilliance of Austen is that while she penned timeless tales of scathing social critique, her work can be enjoyed as "romantic fairytales" by those who would rather not "expend much effort" in getting their Austen fix. I have attended various productions of Mr.Gordon's musicals over the last 10 years, from California to New York, and I have yet to hear a single negative comment from an audience member. But then, what do we know? We are just the paying public.

I have avoided movie/ t.v. versions of Emma because I love the book, which is certainly Austen's best novel ( English major, UCLA 1972. The idea of Paltrow as Emma is too horrifying to contemplate. I have my own mind's eye concept of Emma and the other characters and don't want them displaced by someone else's vision of Emma. My wife saw the Paltrow version and was shocked by the poor adaptation which cuts much of the heart out of the novel. Also, many people seem to think that Clueless is a serious version of the novel. That is simply not true. The movie has its moments, but it is not in any way related to Austen's novel. Alicia Silverstone is grating and having her try to set up her dowdy friend with a lover is loosely connected to the novel and not credible.
The musical version is entertaining and thematically interesting. The Times's review seems to me to be very unjust to the Old Globe production. I doubt that the reviewer has read the book carefully. If he did , then he missed the point of the novel,and the Times's review, like many from this particular reviewer, doesn't give the reader an honest and critically accurate review of this play. It is not meant to substitute for the experience of reading the novel. However, the musical numbers and the acting is spot on. I urge people to see the play because it does capture the flavor and essence of the Austen novel without being a replication of the novel, which, of course, is impossible.
Finally, I sense that McNulty wanted something more politically correct and less conservative in its basic premise and principles. The most reasonable and intelligent character is an aristocratic, elitist MAN, Mr. Knightly. My surmise is that the reviewer is so used to a woman being the the "best " character, wise and mature, that he can't assimilate the fact that Emma is a dunce and Mr. Knightly saves her from herself. Also, the lack of left-wing politics certainly prejudiced McNulty against not only this production, but also Austen's novel itself. It has been a long time since I read a review of a play that so little corresponds to the virtues and positive aspects of said play.


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