“Other people’s pleasure will always be my leisure, but why bear such pleasure alone? The match that I’d most like to make should rightly be my own!”— Miss Emma Woodhouse, “Emma, The Musical”
‘I know it is not improper’ for us to discuss the latest offering in the “Chance Theater’s” annual “Holiday Literature Series”, which features musicals based on family-friendly works of classic literature; ‘I have been discreet but now I’m overdue’, as I point out that this award-winning theater company is presently acquainting So Cal audiences with Jane Austen’s “Emma: The Musical”! Based on one of literature’s most beguiling and enduring love stories (the very last of the groundbreaking novelist’s works published in her lifetime,) this vivacious musical has been brought to vibrant life on The Chance Theater’s “Cripe Stage”. With a book, lyrics, and music by Tony-nominated Composer Paul Gordon (renowned for his prior musical adaptation of another pioneering female author’s most famous tome, namely Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”,) this Orange County debut is directed by Casey Long, with musical direction by Bill Strongin, A staple of popular and literary culture since its inaugural publication in 1816, “Emma” has served as the source for numerous adaptations on the big-screen, the small-screen, and the stage–including several miniseries, a 1996 blockbuster film starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role, and was even ‘updated’ and re-set in Beverly Hills for the 1995 comedy “Clueless” starring Alicia Silverstone; in any case, few if any, previous versions capture the buoyant energy and unabashed fun as wonderfully as this new production now playing in Anaheim California!
Featuring an intelligent and exceedingly witty score from Tony-nominated Composer Paul Gordon, (who also provided the book,) although there are few if any real ‘stand-part’ numbers, he instead delightfully employs music and song as extensions of the dialogue or as an opportunity for characters to give vent to their otherwise ‘unspoken’ thoughts. In this latter regard specifically, his lyrics are blithe, bubbly, astute and amusing while remaining 100% true to Austen’s fundamental intent. A fine example of this occurs as part of “Have Another Piece Of Cake” which rates among the sharpest and most side-splitting comedic stanzas in this or any musical, in which our lass “Emma” at length comes face-to-face with her storied ‘rival’, “Miss Jane Fairfax”: “What a stupendous—Icy—stare!” she fumes unheard by those with whom she’s attending a ‘civilized’ ladies tea; “I cannot ‘improve her’ or form her opinions (—she seems to have none of her own!) I don’t like her intentions–she stirs my apprehension…and snobbery and arrogance only look good on me!” Textually speaking, here is a fast-paced but well-focused re-envisioning as opposed to other renderings of the story which too-often become bogged down in incidental episodes or side-plots. That said though, diehard Austen fans need not be worried that in adapting such a magnum opus for the musical stage too much has been sacrificed for the sake of expedience. Instead, Gordon’s libretto steadfastly concentrates on our Heroine, commendably packing a humongous amount of plot into a scant two (or so) hours, while preserving all the most distinguished and treasured loves scenes and incidents from the novel. One way he does this is by having his main character frequently address the audience directly while those she’s dealing with address her. Interestingly too, is how (in faithfully adhering to the overall times and fashions of that generation,) the script contains almost NO ‘contractions—a speech defect thought to be ‘vulgar’ for people of “Emma’s” station and society back in those days.
Director Casey Long also maintains this primary focus stressing the humor in the story (and above all as it concerns our girl’s high opinion of herself,) while also taking advantage of the script’s brisk pace (who knew Austen’s saga could be so fast-moving?) Moreover, when not directly involved in a scene or number, he artfully stations the cast at either side of the stage to observe the action, waiting patiently until it’s time for them to step into the spotlight once more. Intriguingly, his tactic seems to efficaciously counterbalance and reconcile the vastness of the story with the general intimacy of the settings (not to mention the more diminutive-size of the auditorium itself.) Not only is the result a remarkably ‘coherent’ retelling of an old favorite, but also one that seems like the perfect ‘fit’ for the “Cripe Stage”! As far as any formal choreography, while there’s very little in the way of “dance” what there is occurs mostly at a post-intermission Ballroom scene (given in honor of “Mr. Frank Churchill’s” return;) even then it is fittingly more in the way of a group promenade as opposed to something more formal or ‘sophisticated’ (Waltzing in England having hitherto not come into vogue at this time.)
Set against the backdrop of England’s Georgian era of the early 1800’s, the tale unfolds in the provincial country village of Highbury, where we meet young “Miss Emma Woodhouse” whom we’re told, “was handsome, well-bred, clever, and rich with a comfortable home and a happy disposition.” Fervently well-meaning, but habitually headstrong and disaster-prone, after introducing her longtime Governess to a neighboring wealthy widower, she has come to fancy herself as an expert Matchmaker. Thing is, she tends to ignore her own romantic feelings while setting out to find a ‘proper’ suitor for her friend “Harriet” and just about everyone else. Her efforts go awry, (of course,) leading to a cornucopia of comic complications, sudden revelations and ultimately, true love and sumptuous romance for everyone involved (including Miss Woodhouse herself) such as only the fruitful imagination of so celebrated an Authoress as Jane Austen could conjure. As anyone the least bit familiar with Miss Austen’s works can tell you, her novels are filled with a well-drawn coterie of colorful characters—just the thing for a brilliant cast such as is now at “The Chance”. As an ensemble, they furnish the production with some truly sublime harmonizing—starting with the opening, “Queen Anne’s Lace”, sung at the wedding of Emma’s former governess and ‘best friend in the world’, “Miss Taylor” (now “Mrs. Weston”.) “Love is an even stronger force than myself,” Emma asserts brightly when the freshly espoused Bride and Groom credit her with bringing them together; then when chided for coyly eschewing credit for all her doings on their behalf, she guilelessly agrees, “Yes, being TOO modest is my greatest fault.” Another dazzling group undertaking is “Relations” which takes place shortly after: “We love them with sincerity…we write with regularity,” they carol, before cautioning: “The weak of heart need not apply!” Along with heralding several key characters, most notably “Miss Jane Fairfax” (“—Miss Bates’ Orphan Niece,” Emma demurs dryly, “every letter from her is read forty times over!”) and “The Esteemed Mr. Frank Churchill” (“Mr. Weston’s” son from his preceding marriage, raised by his Aunt and even taking her family name after his own mother’s passing.) It also clarifies the peculiar connection the sometimes blunt, but always compassionate nearby landowner “Mr. Knightley” has to the Woodhouse clan: “There are some relations that are impossible to make sense of” Emma breezes; they are, as is lyrically put, “Related incidentally’ noting how he’s the brother of the man who married Emma’s older sister so, “I’m not quite sure what that makes him to me!” she puzzles. The opening of Act Two comparably affords another laudable group harmony with “Pride And Sense” as the entire company sing in rhapsodic chorus, of the pure virtue of this unmatched paragon of womanly virtue who walks among them named “Miss Woodhouse” (…too bad it’s soon revealed to purely be a reverie in “Emma’s” own mind!)
Leading them all in the titular role of “Emma Woodhouse”, is Mandy Foster whose take on the character is supremely likable albeit now and again just a touch coquettish (and distinctly so when it comes to the men around her.) We can forgive any of her forays into innocent self-satisfaction, because we can readily see just how comedically off the mark and completely free of malice such expressions are. In fact, Foster has managed to find abundant humor and even innocence that are often missing in other characterization of this girl of whom even Austen herself once stated was “A heroine no one but myself will much like.” Consider too, how Ms. Foster is on-stage practically the entire time—no small feat for any actress, but happily, she doesn’t merely ascend to the challenge, she prevails. She also has a lovely, mellifluous voice which she handily puts into the service of the many numbers she’s either been fully tasked with or contributes to (also far more than many other “Leading Lady” roles in recent musicals.) Her mid-point soliloquy, “I’ve Never Met Him” (a virtual hymn to “Mr. Frank Churchill”—a man she’s never even seen let alone met, but whom she’s nonetheless seriously ‘crushing’ on,) is a bona-fide highlight of Act One: “We’re likely to be happy should we ever meet,” she gushes dreamily.) Immediately following, when she actually meets him, the two join forces for an A-Plus Duet called “It Feels Like Home” during which she consequently intones: “I’m likely to like him; he‘s likely to like me, we’re likely to be happy now that we have met!”. Another triumph Foster can claim arises as part of the first act climax, in a sequence referred to as “The Recital” (A.K.A. “Sweet Sister Mary”.) This has “Emma”, and everyone really, revealing their inner-thoughts. Subsequently in Act Two she keeps on amazing us—first with the pensive, “This Is How Love Feels”. Puzzled by “Mr. Churchill’s” sudden departure, she stops to wonder why it doesn’t upset her more. Yet it’s her climactic “Epiphany” that’s clearly the crowning glory of an already lustrous performance. Having realized that “Mr. Frank Churchill” was explicitly NOT the man for her, instead she’s jolted into admitting she’s starting to see “Mr. Knightley” in a much more affectionate and amorous light: “I cannot imagine I could be in love with him—that would be so wrong!” she exclaims; “I cannot believe that I have loved him…all along!”
Gifted with a strong stage presence and a rich, robust, voice to match, Jeff Lowe is her (at first) ‘undiscovered lover’–the debonair “Mr. George Knightley”. Regaling us in all the best (and often ‘drollest’) ways, he often interjects quick (and as often as not, contrary) remarks, and in this way, is kind of like “Emma’s” inner-conscience. (“Emma knows I never ‘flatter’ her,” he clarifies; “I offer the truth–you can’t have it both ways!”) Lowe also has copious moments to vaunt his auspicious vocal abilities including several superlative duets–most of them opposite our headstrong protagonist. These include “I Made The Match Myself’ and “The Argument”, wherein having suggested that “Emma” isn’t such so skillful a matchmaker as she presumes, he admonishes her: “You simply said to yourself one idle day, I think it would be a good thing were Mr. Weston and Miss Taylor to marry; Success supposes endeavor—you made a lucky guess, that’s all!” It’s his Second Act rendition of the lush and lilting title number, “Emma” (–arguably the closest thing to an “I Want” type standard the score can boast,) that fully showcases the resonance and song-interpreting capabilities we’d just been given glimpses of beforehand. When “Mr. Knightley” FINALLY admits to himself the passionate feelings “Emma” inspires within him, he cannot contain himself any longer: “Emma, the dawn breaks with your smile and for just a while I am comforted…” (Count this as one stunning interlude well-worth waiting for!) Zoya Martin is also outstanding as the unpretentious but exceptionally good-natured, “Harriet Smith”: “Her grammar can be improved but her hair is impeccable!” Emma determines of her less-cultured friend (–Harriet is an orphan, “The natural daughter of nobody”, you see.) Whatever her social short-comings though, “Emma” further exults: “She is easily ‘altered’—how lucky she is to have ME to guide her!” Ms. Martin herself adds a lively quality to all her songs, and her exuberance (principally amidst whatever misguided, if presumably gregarious, schemes her supposed “Friend” subjects her to,) gives her approach to this character a special empathetic aspect that makes her all the more endearing. She practically floats above the footlights delivering “Mr. Robert Martin”—a beatitude to the man who should be her true-love (were it not for outside meddling,) and as joyous as she makes it sound (and that she certainly does,) we can’t help but feeling touched all the same by (to say nothing of being frustrated for) her. Ms. Martin also triumphs after intermission at the center of “Humiliation”—a lyrical ode to keeping a ‘stiff-upper lip’ in the face of stinging public embarrassment: “Other than wanting to die it’s a lovely soiree,” she croons with deceptive placidity; “and aside from the anguish and torment, I’ve had a good time…’’ (Thankfully, Mr. Knightley swoops in to save her from death by mortification, asking her to dance.) Rest assured though, that by the show’s end, ‘Harriet’ does decisively show us her backbone as well—and when she at long last stands up to “Emma” it honestly is a gratifying moment as conveyed in the brief, but righteously heated reprise of “Humiliation”: “Now you can know what it feels like to suffer in shame” she sneers; “Humiliation—now there is no one in England but yourself to blame; and aside from the anguish and torment how does it feel?!” (This also allows Martin to validate how solidly and splendidly she can handle some magnificent ‘money notes’ at the song’s ride-out!)
Portraying the fetching “Miss Jane Fairfax” whom Emma, (without any real, immediate cause,) looks on as a rival for her…well, everything, is Megan McCarthy. Appropriately enchanting, demure, pleasant and with an elegant, operatic-quality mezzo-soprano voice, she too is a major part of “Have Another Piece Of Cake”, flung into the very epicenter of Emma’s most scorching (but hilarious) critique: “She paints, she writes poetry, she plays the Piano-Forte…there’s hardly room for the rest of us to exhibit any skill at all!” Emma seethes early on. Later, when “Jane” takes over at the spinet for her part in “The Recital” McCarthy wholeheartedly shows off her potent vocal flair–properly heightening what, on the face of it, is a basic, uncomplicated, parlour tune, into near-symphonic territory and you can’t help but be thrilled hearing it! Gavin Cole likewise impresses as the gallant and esteemed “Mr. Frank Churchill” (“a very good-looking and dashing and noble young man,” we’re advised.) Cole’s song-styling is more eloquent—sensitive and smooth, but packing a powerful punch when needed. This he adeptly proves with “Frank’s” inaugural declaration, “Home” which sort of becomes his theme. Conspicuously chivalrous, at the outset he’s the subject of Emma’s starry-eyed obsession; ironically though, his is a tricky enigmatic character to play. Like “Miss Fairfax”, “Frank” doesn’t really appear until towards the close of Act One. Instead, he’s repeatedly referred to, which can present any actor playing him with a unique set of challenges—not least of which being: “how does he live up to all the audience anticipation?” (Especially when seen through our ‘Miss Woodhouse’ s’ decidedly narrow lens of perception.) However, given Mr. Cole’s venerable acting and singing talent and on-stage charisma, his influence is resoundingly felt even when “Mr. Churchill” once more has stepped out of the spotlight.
Terrific support is also handed over from Glenn Koppel as Emma’s loving but just this side of hypochondriacal father, “Mr. Woodhouse” –whose one catchphrase emphatically seems to be “I don’t like change!” Still, Koppel infuses his character with generous warmth, making what could otherwise be just an old kvetching pantaloon, into a genuinely affable and at times, uproarious addition to the goings-on. On top of everything, he is granted some of the production’s very best lines, such as how upon hearing that “Mr. Elton” has married an older and more propertied woman than was Emma’s choice for him, the elder “Woodhouse” exclaims: “Mr. Elton Married! There is no end to the sad consequence of ‘Happily’ married couples!” Meanwhile, As Harriet’s would-be suitor and rightful object of her affections, Kristofer Buxton shines with personality too, as the boyish and amiable gentleman farmer “Mr. Robert Martin” (–of “Abbey-Mill Farm”!) With a pronounced ‘rustic’ accent and colossal grin, we’re told he originally bonded with his lady-love over their shared affection for ‘walnuts’: “Do you know, once he had gone three miles to bring me some,” Harriet giggles, “just because he had heard that I was fond of them!” Together with Ms. Martin, the pair do radiate a palpable charisma—indeed, we can immediately see (even if “Harriet’s” alleged “Benefactress” refuses to,) despite “Emma’s” adamance to the contrary, his “Mr. Martin” and her “Harriet” make for a positively magnetic twosome! Another newcomer to the Chance Theater Stage is Coleton Ray as the “dapper and youthful” Vicar, “Mr. Elton”. Ray supplies a breath of fresh musical air in an otherwise not too pleasant a role. He also has a lavish tenor voice and deftly holds his own and then some as part of “The Portrait”—a lyrical ‘badinage’ that has “Elton” and “Knightley” verbally sparring over the merits of “Emma’s” painting of “Harriet”. It’s funny, it’s farcical—just a bit slap-sticky and a definite bright spot in an Act full of them. Right beside him throughout the entire second half is Carlene O’Neill, who also provides masterful diversion while holding down two roles. In the first act she’s “Mr. Martin’s” cheerful cherub of a sister, “Miss Elizabeth Martin”; then later, she garners some big laughs at the other end of the spectrum as the delectably boorish and unrepentantly overbearing “Mrs. Elton”: “I have heard it said on more than one occasion that my particular charms are of benefit to any community of high standing,” she virtually gloats upon her initial encounter with “Emma” (who for her part muses, “Vanity must always be forgiven because there is no hope of a cure!”) Also worthy of note is Shannon Page as the slightly dowdy dowager, “Miss Bates” and Chance Theater Resident Artist Sherry Domerego as her elderly, chronically hard-of-hearing mother “Mrs. Bates.”
As has become their tradition at “The Chance” involving the “Holiday Literature Series”, the (largely) unadorned wood plank set by Masako Tobaru is augmented by numerous projections by Kristin Campbell (including several which essentially ‘set the scene’ emblazoned across the back scrim, while to either side of the playing area, they feature authentic pages of text from the book in question blown up to appreciable size.) For this story though, the rough-hewn stage, in conjunction with this dearth of more significant/less utilitarian set pieces, surprisingly appears to be the most suitable route. Bruce Goodrich’s Georgian costumes are also absolutely spot-on—accented with wispy white bonnets which most all the ladies wear. In point of fact, the women on stage look like a collection of pristinely attired Regency-period china dolls with gowns whose hues hint at their ‘station’ in life (the brighter the color the more prosperous and ‘elevated’ the lady!) While the men’s apparel, from their sterling top hats, high-collars and waist and tail coats down to the shiny buckles on their shoes (–those that aren’t sporting full-on riding boots that is,) is every bit as striking in their historic accuracy to boot! (The wigs everyone wears are flawless too!) Not to be overlooked either is the crucial contribution made by Musical Director Bill Strongin who also serves as the sole piano accompanist and similarly stays on-stage all through the proceedings (admittedly no small task but without his substantial talent, the ‘musical’ would surely be far less pleasant-sounding!)
This “Emma” will leave you helpless in her grace—or, to paraphrase a little from the final number, “It would not be wrong to be in love…with this musical” (–and you most assuredly will be!) After “Previewing” from November 23rd through November 30th, “Emma, The Musical” officially opened on Saturday December 1st, 2018 where it will continue to play through Sunday December 23rd, 2018 on the “Cripe Stage” at Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center located at: 5522 E. La Palma Avenue in Anaheim CA. Showtimes are: Thursday evenings at 7:30 PM; Fridays at 8:00 PM; Saturdays at 3:00 PM and 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 3:00 PM. Tickets for this engagement may be obtained by calling (888) 455-4212, or online by logging onto: http://www.ChanceTheater.com . (Discounts are available for Children ages 4-12, Seniors, Students and Military Personnel.)
Production Photos by Benjamin Busch Courtesy Of “The Chance Theater”; Special Thanks To Casey Long, Oanh Nguyen, Bebe Herrera, Bill Strongin, And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chance Theater’s” 2018 Production Of Jane Austen’s “Emma, The Musical” For Making This Story Possible.