Friday, January 28, 2011

Jane Austen's Emma Romances The Old Globe

Patti Murin as Emma and Adam Monley as Mr. Knightley
Photos by Henry DiRocco

Numerous book clubs and chat groups are dedicated to the discussion of Jane Austen’s heroines. There is a Jane Austen Society, an official Jane Austen magazine, an annual Jane Austen Festival and a wide variety of Jane Austen games available, not to mention the films made and remade from her classic novels. You can even take an online quiz to determine which of her heroines you are most like.

With the ongoing love affair of all things Jane, is it any wonder that one of her most distinctive heroines, Emma, should be the subject of a brand new musical?

Jane Austen’s EMMA - A Musical Romantic Comedy, with book, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, is now playing at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, directed with a wink by Jeff Calhoun and starring a bright, sparkling Patti Murin in the title role. Murin fills the stage with endlessly vibrant energy making this perfectly proper, hopelessly flawed Emma a maddening delight.Gordon’s adaptation retains the essentials of the classic story of a young woman whose matchmaking attempts create far more chaos than she ever anticipated. Though cautioned by her friend Mr. Knightley (Adam Monley), who sees the folly of her misguided meddling before she even begins, Emma’s pronouncement that her leisure is other people’s pleasure tells us her mind is thoroughly made up.

After taking credit for the happily married status of her ex-governess, the new Mrs. Weston (Amanda Naughton), she decides to find a bride for Mr. Elton (Brian Herndon) the vicar. Enter one Harriet Smith (Dani Marcus), a simple young woman of no particular means or status, and voilà, Emma has his intended within reach.

Adam Daveline and Dani Marcus
Unfortunately, Harriet is smitten with Mr. Robert Martin (Adam Daveline), a farmer whom Emma believes could never be a suitable match, though Knightley vehemently disagrees. She immediately plots to steer Harriet in the direction of the vicar, only to have the situation backfire when Mr. Elton reveals that he has his sights set on Emma.

More mishaps follow with the arrival of Jane Fairfax (the lovely Allison Spratt Pearce), whom Emma can’t quite figure out, and the esteemed Frank Churchill (Will Reynolds), who initially appears to be a perfect match for Emma but is keeping a secret. A mysterious pianoforte provides a hilarious scene that sparks Emma’s competitive nature although she is outdone by Jane’s natural ability and grace in the end.Some of the evening’s most comical moments belong to Marcus’ Harriet and a walnut she carries with her - not just any walnut, but one given to her by Mr. Martin to which she lovingly sings at any opportunity. No matter that she has already refused his marriage proposal; she still swoons at the mere mention of his name, and Marcus gets the laughs every time.

Gordon has also given her one of the best comedy songs in musical theatre since Jerry Herman wrote “Gooch’s Song” for Agnes in Mame. I would bet that “Humiliation” will go into every young character woman’s audition book as soon as the sheet music becomes available.

As for the rest of the score, Gordon’s music is a dream, from the downbeat of “Hartfield,” which propels us into the world of Regency England, through “The Epiphany” when Emma realizes it’s been Mr. Knightley she has loved all along. In between are more beautiful melodies than you can count and poetry that will satisfy every hopeless romantic in the audience, a highlight being Knightley’s “Emma,” which soars to the rafters and is one of Adam Monley’s finest vocal moments of the night.

The action plays out on, and in front of, a gorgeous hedgerow maze by scenic designer Tobin Ost. Magnificently clean and commanding, it features a turntable that moves from one end of the maze across the front of the stage and out the other, delivering everything from people to furniture to the above mentioned pianoforte in an almost constant state of motion.

Denitsa Bliznakova’s period costumes are lovely and Michael Gilliam’s lighting plays up the comedy in the show quite effectively. And, of course, musical director Laura Bergquist has once again made magic of the music, as she did previously with Gordon’s Ovation Award-winning musical, Daddy Long Legs, which played throughout Southern California last year and quickly became a favorite of mine.

Happily, the love affair continues with Jane Austen's EMMA by Paul Gordon and there is no end in sight. For Austen lovers, musical theatre fans, and all you romantics out there, this one’s for you.
The show has been extended to run through March 6th. For tickets and more information go to

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