BWW Review: Musical Adaptation of Jane Austen's EMMA Beguiles at OC's Chance Theater
While watching Chance Theater's brand new OC-premiere of EMMA: THE MUSICAL--Paul Gordon's charm-filled 2007 stage musical adaptation of Jane Austen's beloved 1815 novel--I noticed a welcome sensation that took over me throughout most of the production... I could not stop smiling.
Delightfully appealing and positively buoyant in a great many aspects, this wonderfully witty and quite beguiling production--directed with engaging gusto by Casey Long--continues performances at their Cripe Stage in Anaheim through December 23, 2018. Though not specifically a holiday-themed musical, the show does have that feel-good family-friendly vibe that meshes well with the season.
As a self-admitted fanatic of British period pieces (BBC costume dramas are basically like my heroin), EMMA certainly checks off a lot of my own must-haves: aside from being a winsome comedy of manners bubbling with acerbic wit, this stage production boasts a collection of eccentric and gossipy characters, lots of criss-crossed misconstrued romances, plenty of droll bon mots that transcend time and social status, a dazzling assortment of period costumes, and, most importantly, a central title character that, at first glance, might easily come off as annoying and intrusive, but, luckily, turns out to be quite a likable if quirky persona that commands attention. Add to that a lovely musical theatre component and EMMA: THE MUSICAL is simply a wonderfully entertaining self-contained musical that fits in very well at the Chance Theatre.
Gordon--whose theatrical résumé also includes musical adaptations of other literary classics JANE EYRE and SENSE & SENSIBILITY--should be lauded for not only beautifully condensing Austen's three-volume novel into digestible, easy-to-follow portions fit for a modern theatergoing audience while honoring its vintage roots, but also for creating what is essentially an enjoyable "chamber musical" that smaller theaters can produce without skimping on recognition or impact. Long's calculated direction sharply capitalizes on this, staging a production that puts its close-quartered, well-choreographed ensemble cast milling about mere inches from one another at any given moment--reiterating the idea of small-knit communities where talk and gossip about neighbors are the order of the day and where one person's business is everyone's business... particularly Emma's.
Emma Woodhouse, of course, is the starry center of this universe that everyone else just orbits. A member of fictional Highbury's "landed gentry"--a class of citizens that came into wealth via land inheritance--Emma is a smart and well-meaning young lady but has a tendency to act spoiled and holier-than-thou. She also has strong, almost stubborn convictions, and is convinced that she is always correct. Despite such a healthy self-esteem, she feels that despite her privilege, class, and intelligence, she isn't necessarily slated for marriage--the ultimate end goal for most women in these parts--but, rather, feels she is the perfect person to bring people together.
As such she makes it almost her divinely-appointed duty to be the snoopy busybody that gets into everyone's business to guide them towards landing their "best" partnerships, whether they asked for it or not. The title role in Chance Theater's production is essayed with an alluring flair by Mandy Foster, who brilliantly straddles a fine line between exasperating and charismatic, and doing so with a lovely singing voice that befits both the strengths and vulnerabilities of her character. Foster's strong portrait definitely contributes to the overall enjoyment of this show.
So how did Emma get so adamant and confident in her self-appointed need to manipulate the lives of those around her, specifically in the realm of matchmaking? Perhaps it is partially because Emma lost her mother while Emma was much younger, and has witnessed the mental deterioration of her widower father, Mr. Woodhouse (Glenn Kopel) into a broken hypochondriac fearful of even the slightest bit of change, as he lives out the rest of his life alone and unbetrothed. Perhaps Emma just didn't want that life for herself, so she gained a spunky, independent-minded spirit in the process.
But, upon closer examination, the likeliest reason Emma took up matchmaking might have simply started with the fortuitous wedding of her own former governess, Miss Taylor (Lulu Mack) to Mr. Weston (Robin Walton), whose courtship and eventual marriage stemmed from Emma's initial introduction. This one success--and the happiness it brought to someone she cares about--is apparently enough for Emma to do the same for others. Her first "client" is her new, highly-impressionable friend Harriet Smith (Zoya Martin), a local girl with mysterious parentage that she decides to take under her wing and mentor.
Emma is convinced Harriet is perfect for the local vicar, Mr. Elton (Coleton Ray) and creates multiple opportunities for the two to be in each other's company--with Emma nearby as a hovering chaperone, of course. Little does Emma know, however, that Ms. Smith is already being quietly romanced by a handsome and kind local farmer, Robert Martin (Kristofer Buxton), whose only real negative is that he does not have enormous wealth or a high social status. Emma urges Harriet not to accept Mr. Martin's marriage proposal, because she is convinced Mr. Elton is truly in love with her and is the right man for her.
As one might expect--and we laughably witness--Emma is waaaay off with her so-called instincts, a fact that her sister's brother-in-law, Mr. George Knightley (Jeff Lowe)--a familiar family friend and frequent visitor--is more than happy to point out to her repeatedly. Mr. Knightley's comfort in constantly reprimanding and teasing Emma for her meddling is curiously both tart and endearing at the same time. Wink. Wink.
Her flawed but, of course, humorous methodology is disproven again and again as Emma tries to keep meddling, only to find later that her inclinations and predictions are woefully out-of-step with what is actually happening.
She even initiates more faux pas with two of her similarly-aged peers that she hasn't seen since childhood and who have now returned to Highbury after a long absence: the debonair Frank Churchill (Gavin Cole), Mr. Weston's son who as a young child was whisked away to live with his wealthy aunt for a "better" life; and the infamous, well-liked Jane Fairfax (Megan McCarthy), the much talked-about, much lauded-about young lady who was also sent away, like Mr. Churchill, as a young child to receive a better education. Naturally, Emma is slightly jealous of Ms. Fairfax, notably because everyone seems to be fond of her, and because of the enthusiastic overshares of her letters through the years via her proud aunt Miss Bates (Shannon Page) who often visits the Woodhouses with the silent Mrs. Bates (Sherry Domerego) with tales of Ms. Fairfax's latest triumphs.
Rumor and confusion rule the day as secret relationships give way to misunderstood or even surprise attractions. In the midst of all this, what's even more amusing is the fact that Emma is so focused on manipulating situations and finding love connections for others as she sees fit that she is hilariously unaware of actual love connections aimed towards her--including someone that's been right under her nose all along.
Lively and high-spirited--much like its title character--EMMA: THE MUSICAL charms with each subsequent wry scene as our intrusive but ultimately darling matchmaker tries to unite people only to leave more chaos in her wake. But she is just so charming that you start to second guess whether she's just a well-intentioned hot mess or if the people that surround her just isn't measuring up to her greatness.
While the jury is still out on whether or not Austen's source material works better as a stage musical rather than the expected straight play adaptation or--as seen much more frequently--as a movie or a TV mini-series, this current iteration as it stands presented at the Chance Theater is undeniably sublime. Austen's story combined with Gordon's slimmed-down book and two acts' worth of admirable original music (indeed very tuneful but not exactly memorably cast-album-rotation worthy), make for a great evening of musical theater.
The production itself is also of a higher quality and standard in comparison to other similarly-sized black box theater offerings. It's the kind that's expected here at this award-winning theater, yet is still a continuous pleasant surprise to find in a small footprint. Particularly for EMMA: THE MUSICAL, the scenic structures designed by Masako Tobaru--coupled with Bruce Goodrich's luxe period costumes and Kristen Campbell's projection design--evoke a novel metaphorically coming to life and leaping off the pages.
To that end, I appreciate how Long had the characters not In Focus always hovering in the periphery--either on the sides or toward the rear of the floor stage--creating an almost immersive, surround sound experience while never pausing for inaction. The staging keeps things lively much as it can be ensured for a musical where most interactions are mostly intensified conversations in small rooms. Every actor pretty much embodies how one might picture these characters living in Austen's novel might look like, and having them always present in the background keeps them "alive" and part of the gossipy environment that Highbury seems to be.
And, wow, when everyone starts singing together, producing some glorious harmonies, it is just lovely. Even better, each main actor does get a moment to shine individually, too, giving them the extra room to show off their vocal chops as well as stretch their characters' arcs since they'll all cross paths with our dear Ms. Woodhouse eventually.
Foster and Lowe's flirtatious rapport is genuinely palpable despite the obvious (and quite noticeable) age gap, and, of course, their singing is just top-notch. Martin--tasked with the sidekick role but ultimately transcends it--is also quite a remarkable singer, blessed with a glorious delivery tinged with great comic timing. Other cast standouts include Ray as the (ultimately) slimy Mr. Elton, Cole as Frank Churchill, McCarthy as Jane Fairfax, and the adorkable Buxton as lovestruck farmer Robert Martin. Accompanying them all on a solitary piano is the ever steadfast musical director Bill Strongin whose musical stylings keep things light and airy throughout the musical.
Overall, Chance Theater's production of EMMA: THE MUSICAL is one of this closing month's most enjoyable charmers--a pleasantly cheery musical filled with quick wit and comical romance and even a little bit of snark--that reminds us that even in one's pursuit for everlasting love, there's always room for growth and even a little bit of laughable fun.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos from Chance Theater's production of EMMA: THE MUSICAL by Benjamin Busch.
Chance Theater's Production of EMMA: THE MUSICAL continues on the Cripe Stage through December 23, 2018. The Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.