The setup: Though I'm sure Jane Austen has plenty of male fans as well, let's just say that young women who originally thrilled to the 1995 films and miniseries Clueless, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility (and lingered on through Bridget Jones' Diary) now have teenage daughters who'll be delighted to bear another Austen-inspired craze through the culture like a puppy through a python. And no one's better at turning fusty, twee literature into charming, slightly less twee stage musicals than Paul Gordon (Daddy Long Legs, Jane Eyre).
So Arizona Theatre Company's giving the people what they want by brightening January with the Arizona première of another Gordon-scored tuner, the regional-theatre-beloved Jane Austen's Emma.
The execution: Austen took a clever risk when she made Emma Woodhouse a character with whom the reader might prefer not to openly identify (she thinks a bit too highly of her own opinions and is, therefore, quite a meddler). Emma is, however, a guilty pleasure from a third-person POV, and it turns out she's very, very funny when Gordon takes the next step of turning her into the story's narrator.
Emma is in several ways a larger musical than the chamber-style Daddy Long Legs, which is almost entirely sung; nevertheless, Gordon's strength doesn't lie in creating eminently hummable earworms of musical theatre (he apparently saves that for his pop compositions like "Next Time I Fall"). What he's fantastic at, though, is suiting lyrics, melodies, and orchestrations to each novelist's style.
In the case of Austen, that means being verbose, witty, and complexly rhymed when appropriate (which is usually). On the instrumental side, Julie McBride's small but mighty orchestra paints nostalgic figures that both define and reinforce Bill Forrester's delicate, creative scene designs (based on 19th-century "toy theaters," which add a layer to Emma's light-hearted manipulations).
Not every song seems to flow naturally from character and action -- a few seem to be solos only because a spoken monologue would have been more tiresome at that particular point -- but most are dynamically appropriate, especially the opening "I Create the World," which Anneliese van der Pol (Emma) nails as a way to both goose the show's energy from the get-go and subtly introduce her character arc. van der Pol drives the show like a Regency-era muscle car through both acts, adorable as all hell and confident as one would expect Emma Woodhouse to be if she were dropped into the lead role in a musical.
Dani Marcus, as Harriet Smith, Emma's best friend and most hapless victim, is wrenchingly comic, and the two actresses' timing and chemistry is an admirable product of their having played opposite each other in several productions of this script. Marcus garnered applause on opening night that was exceeded only by van der Pol's own -- her finest moment may have been "Humiliation," in which she warbles with decorous ferocity about what a fine night it is to fling oneself from a precipice, and things like that. The verdict: The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Whether you're looking for a family-friendly show that will inspire young people to read books or you just want to have a lot of fun at a well-produced piece of theater, Jane Austen's Emma is worth your while.
Jane Austen's Emma continues through Sunday, January 20, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Tickets are $33.50 to $92.50 before fees; order seats here. $10 student tickets are also available; for details, call 602-256-6995.
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