Emma: The Old Globe, 2/19/11

23 03 2011

In my former life (i.e. just a few years ago), I was an English major and Jane Austen scholar; I wrote a senior thesis on epistolary constructions of identity in Jane Austen’s novels while I was at Duke. I always have a soft spot for theatrical adaptations of my favorite Romantic and Victorian novels, although they rarely live up to my mental ideal of the text. So I trekked down to San Diego one weekend this February to take in Paul Gordon’s musical romantic comedy Emma at the Old Globe.

Emma Woodhouse is the rich, spoiled center of her community; she meddles in her neighbors’ lives and makes several disastrous attempts at matchmaking, while remaining blind to her own perfect romantic match in a long-term family friend Mr. Knightley. Although Jane Austen set out to write a rather despicable heroine, Emma is endearing in her many flaws; her dedication to friends is genuine, even if her actions are often misguided. (You might know the character best as her contemporary counterpart: Cher in Clueless.)

Paul Gordon has a penchant for charming musical adaptations of classic novels with strong female leads; I enjoyed Daddy Long Legs at the Broad Stage most recently, and Gordon is perhaps best known for the Broadway hit Jane Eyre. In Emma, Gordon’s classic compositional style spans from Sondheim (with clear evocations of Sunday in the Park with George when Emma paints her friend Harriet’s portrait) to Rodgers and Hammerstein (with Harriet’s ode to “Mr. Robert Martin” being a more playful, comical version of Carrie’s “When I’ll Marry Mr. Snow” from Carousel). Yet within this traditional musical theater style, awkward contemporary, poppy melismas sometimes sneak into the score – and frustratingly, Gordon writes fragments rather than songs.

In a strange reversal of the musical’s usual formal challenges (the infamous Act II problems), Emma’s second act is actually stronger than the first; Act II sinks into character and offers up more poetic and complete songs, whereas Act I plows through the plot in unmemorable segments. Gordon could benefit from a separate bookwriter; taking on book, lyrics, and music oneself is admirable, but rarely functional.

The production features an impressive set design by Tobin Ost, with a hedge maze and turntable: these elements echo the tension between a circular, historical inevitability of romantic couplings and the maze of actually finding and navigating these relationships. The cast is generally impressive, with only a few uneven British accents. Jeff Calhoun’s direction emphasizes the musical comedy elements – often verging on caricatured relationships, rather than the original novel’s nuanced character studies.

Yet Calhoun’s direction makes up for the notable lack of zing and wit in Gordon’s book. Emma’s interior monologue in “The Recital” (reminiscent of Cathy’s audition in Last Five Years) and the playful, puppetlike manipulation of bodies whenever Emma envisions a match stand out as creative, compelling moments amidst an otherwise flat musical adaptation. Emma is enjoyable, but ultimately unimpactful: a nice evening at the theater, but little more.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

One response

15 11 2011
JANE AUSTEN’S EMMA: A MUSICAL ROMANTIC COMEDY: 88% – SWEET : LA Bitter Lemons

[…] SWEET Yet Calhoun’s direction makes up for the notable lack of zing and wit in Gordon’s book. Emma’s interior monologue in “The Recital” (reminiscent of Cathy’s audition in Last Five Years) and the playful, puppetlike manipulation of bodies whenever Emma envisions a match stand out as creative, compelling moments amidst an otherwise flat musical adaptation. Emma is enjoyable, but ultimately unimpactful: a nice evening at the theater, but little more. Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: