Although we are delighted when a theatrical endeavor delivers something greater than the sum of its parts, most of the time, we witness a collaboration that produces ... well, simply the sum of its parts.
So it is with Arizona Theatre Company's Jane Austen's Emma, a well-crafted, good-natured musical-comedy adaptation of Ms. Austen's much-appreciated 19th-century novel. Paul Gordon's book, music and lyrics relate the condensed story of meddlesome matchmaking cleverly enough. ATC's cast is wonderfully capable and committed to the story. The voices are rich, and the characters, though necessarily truncated in their development and depth, define themselves with an immediacy that tempers our abbreviated history together. The production is well-supported by a cleverly nifty set by Bill Forrester and handsome period costumes by Yoon Bae.
The elements for a wonderfully charming evening at the theater are all there, knit together well enough to result in well-done if light entertainment. And that's what we get.
Directors Stephen Wrentmore and David Ira Goldstein are careful to set us up for an evening of the fanciful and the frivolous. Forrester's set features a double proscenium, handsomely and classically represented. But instead of gods or mythical creatures on the entablature, there are farm animals and other objects suggestive of the rural society we will enter. They are cutouts, hinting at three dimensions, but actually consisting of only two. This cutout conceit is carried to an elaborate cartoonlike orchestra, complete with a conductor facing the stage, where cardboard-cutout figures representing our story's various characters stand. And to reinforce this idea of edifice, on both sides of the stage are cutout figures in theater box seats. (At least I think this was their purpose; there didn't seem to be any other that I could discern.)
You can't say we aren't warned.
Austen's novel, written in 1815, was a bit unusual in its focus on a single, childless young woman who is financially secure, and so is not desperate to find employment or to make a match herself. This is what makes the story both substantive and a bit sad, although that's certainly not the intent of Gordon's upbeat, amiable creation. Emma (Anneliese van der Pol), for all her confidence in her powers of meddling, is really a shallow, spoiled young woman, with no clear path in the society of her time. What's a woman to do? She needs a purpose and direction for her youthful energy, but the opportunities for channeling her energy are few. So she seizes on the idea that she is a masterful matchmaker, an idea resulting from her having introduced her governess to a man with whom she does make a good marriage.
Youthful, pretty and privileged, Emma foolishly fancies herself with powers she clearly does not have. She decides that her friend Harriet Smith (Dani Marcus) should court the vicar (Brian Herndon), although Harriet has her eye on a strapping young farmer, Mr. Robert Martin (Jon Eidson). But Emma thinks Harriet could do better. Predictably, her idea backfires, and the vicar declares his love for Emma, who is flabbergasted.
And so it goes. Missteps and misconceptions characterize the world Emma creates, with cruelty sometimes thrown in as well. But don't you know that the boy next door, a longtime family friend, Mr. Knightley (Shannon Stoeke), has the courage to call her out, and in doing so, finds that he cares for this womanly work in progress?
It can get a bit confusing, which Gordon acknowledges in his lyrics, but he manages to craft an understandable abridgement of Austen's story. And he treads a fine line, knowing that his leading lady may not be an example of womanhood at its finest, and that the society about which he writes is not the most cleverly evolved. But his approach is not judgmental. He creates neither fairy tale nor cautionary tale.
But where is its heart? Doesn't it need one? That's part of the problem when you set the stage with cardboard characters. And that's what makes this presentation, although charming and skillfully presented, a bit underwhelming, whether it's been made plain that this is two-dimensional stuff or not.
With less-skilled actors, this could be a real mess. But the efforts of ATC's cast are stellar.
Van der Pol is wonderful, creating from less-than-attractive qualities a very likable Emma. Clad in pink, she's clearly a princess, and her opening number, "I Design the World," leaves us with no doubt that we will be treated to a strong and lively, if flawed, heroine.
Central to the story—and perhaps the one who carries its wisp of a heart—is Marcus' Harriet. She submits to being a wonderfully warm and willing pawn in Emma's game while struggling to find her true self and to act in her own best interests. Marcus gives a lovely performance.
What's somewhat refreshing is that the men are often the manipulated rather the manipulators. Herndon as the vicar and Colin Hanlon as Frank Churchill gamely create what are not the choicest specimens of their gender. Stoeke as Mr. Knightley fares a bit better, and his discovery of his love for Emma is delivered with passion in one of the more beautiful songs of the show, "Emma."
Emma has been around for five years and has been produced in San Francisco, Cincinnati, St. Louis and at San Diego's Old Globe. It doesn't appear to be Broadway-bound, since it's more a chamber musical than a sprawling, flashy show.
Maybe it just lacks that certain something that can draw the crowds. To paraphrase a character, it's not really that one dislikes it; it's just that one is disinclined to make an attachment to it.