Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
January 28, 2011
It isn’t even close to spring yet – but love is in the air on local stages.
From the delightfully ditsy production of “Barefoot in the Park,” a sweetly hokey Neil Simon rom -com at Moonlight Stage Productions, crisply directed and performed; to the fraught filial affection for doddering older parents in Scripps Ranch Theatre’s compelling “Painting Churches”; to the symbiotic friendship in the well acted but maddeningly repetitive two-man musical, “The Story of My Life,” at San Diego Musical Theatre. Nicely designed and presented, the show has a lot to say about reading and writing, but the plot centers on composing a eulogy; the survivor realizes too late the inspiration and devotion his late, oddball buddy provided.
But for late-blooming realizations – and 11th hour love — nothing tops Jane Austen’s “Emma,” now having its world premiere as “a musical romantic comedy” at the Old Globe. In his program notes, Paul Gordon, the composer, lyricist and librettist, reports asking himself if Austen’s characters sing. Indeed they do. While streamlining the long, meandering 1815 novel, Gordon hews close to the storyline of convoluted couplings, while preserving Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ And her sly wit. And her English social-class, gossipy silliness. And he makes it all sing.
Emma is a rich, spoiled 21 year-old who thinks she knows everything about everything. Especially love. So she dives into matchmaking as a full-time pursuit, and it’s a disaster, for which she’s duly chastised by the haughty, judgmental Mr. Knightley — Ben edick to her ebullient but sharp-tongued Beatrice. The greatest casualty of Emma’s wrong-headed scheming is the wide-eyed, worshipful Harriet Smith, she of unknown parentage, whom Emma takes up as a cause, attempting to marry her off to a higher station. She fails dismally, and poor Harriet is repeatedly diverted from the tongue-tied, walnut-giving farmer who adores her.
Even in the gentleman she covets for herself, the dashing Frank Churchill, Emma is totally misguided. But at last, she recognizes that her true love is right there under her roof. Her awakening is prodded by Mr. Knightley’s graceful, swooning love song, “Emma.”
Gordon’s charming, melodious score is an ideal match for the tone of the piece – and the marvelously talented cast gifted director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun has amassed. The voices are superb, and the performers have a stunning setting to play around in, cavorting within a giant hedge maze that highlights the story’s labyrinthine relationships. Gordon, Calhoun and company expertly capture the era, and not in the air-headed manner of the 1995 “Emma” update, “Clueless.” The show is lighthearted and fun, but it takes its Austen seriously — and respectfully.
This new musical creation is a delectable addition to the seemingly endless Austen-mania. It won’t take a lot of ‘Persuasion’ to call this one a winner.
The world premiere of “Jane Austen’s Emma” has already been extended, continuing through March 6, at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park .
©2011 PAT LAUNER