The opening sentence of Jane Austen's Emma tells us a great deal about the novel's heroine: "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." The key word here, as any attentive reader of Austen's tale about a spoiled heiress' comically disastrous attempts to meddle in the romantic lives of those around her would notice, is "seemed." It's a masterful bit of storytelling, warning us with the lightest touch not to take this vision of earthly bliss at face value.
When it comes to making sense of Paul Gordon's vivacious new musical adaptation of Austen's novel, the word "seemed" is just as loaded. For what seems to be a typical musical comedy in empire-line dresses is — for better and for worse, but mostly better — something different underneath.
On the surface, Gordon's Emma is a lovely, sugar-dusted confection in musical form. The frosted pastel hues and clean lines of Joe Ragey's Regency country manor–inspired set and Fumiko Bielefeldt's truffle-contoured costumes are just the icing on the cake.
The musical can thank its protagonist for much of its crowd-pleasing effect. Gordon's leading lady is simply more lovable than Austen's. When the writer embarked upon her novel in January 1814, she reportedly said, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." By employing third-person narrative (as opposed to the more intimate first-person mode) and playing up Emma's faults with a cool, ironic stance, the author distances the reader from her main character. "We cannot 'identify' with Emma ... we see her from the outside," the British novelist Margaret Drabble once astutely observed.
Gordon's approach is different. His Emma might be flawed, but only lovably so. We identify with the character closely because she confides in us — many of Emma's lines are spoken directly to the audience. We also get to see inside her head. In one compelling, comical scene our heroine forces herself to play the piano for the entertainment of some assembled house guests or face being upstaged by her nemesis, the beautiful and musically gifted Jane Fairfax. While she tinkles away at the keys, Emma reveals her desperate envy of Jane to us through clever asides. Our love for the character is sealed in Theatreworks' world premiere production (the company's 50th world premiere to date) by the pretty and endearing Lianne Marie Dobbs, who brings coquettish humor and graceful physicality to the main role.
Numerous other qualities contribute to Emma's broad, feel-good appeal, from Gordon's judicious mixture of language lifted directly from Austen's text with his own witty lines, to his use of caricature for supporting roles. Gordon might reduce Ms. Bates (a full-fledged, complex character in the novel) to a big-mouthed spinster, but this oversimplification generally fits in with the musical's glossy, compact format. Strong casting further assists: Like many actors who have played Austen's male leads onscreen in recent years (Matthew Macfadyen's and Colin Firth's turns as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice spring to mind) Timothy Gulan cuts a rakish, rugged figure as Emma's sparring partner, Mr. Knightley. Gordon sets up a love-hate dynamic between these characters right from the start with the cheeky duet "I Made the Match Myself," in which Emma preens over — and Knightley pokes fun at — her matchmaking successes.
With an eye, perhaps, to imbuing Emma with a potentially longer and more bountiful shelf life than that of his previous literary-adaptation musical, Jane Eyre (which closed after only six months on Broadway in 2001 despite multiple Tony nominations) Gordon appears to be aiming his new work straight for the hearts of the pink-fluffy-slipper crowd. Yet as much as Gordon may seem to gloss over the black side of Austen's comedy, shadows constantly creep into his work.
Austen's acerbic social commentary can't help but smudge the musical's shiny surface. The song "Hartfield" succinctly captures the pettiness, boredom, and claustrophobia of life around Emma's Highbury home through homophonic structure and the tick-tock politesse of its cadences (emphasized by the production's quartet of oboe, piano, violin, and cello — hardly conventional instrumentation for a Broadway-style musical comedy). The scenic design's classical balustrades, Doric columns, and fireplaces aptly echo the number's stiff-upper-lipped atmosphere, while the backdrop's bruised purple and brown skies suggest disquiet. Ensemble numbers like "Relations" (about the pros — and superficial cons — of being well-connected by birth) and references to the dubious pedigree of Emma's orphan protégée, Harriet Smith ("She's the natural daughter of nobody"), further serve to highlight 19th-century class issues.
Some of the dark moments in Gordon's Emma appeal emotionally rather than intellectually. The atonal oboe line in "Should We Ever Meet," Emma's romantic fantasy ballad about being wooed by the debonair Frank Churchill, imbues the otherwise slushy song with a hint of mournful irony. Meanwhile, the perfect symmetry created by opening each half of the show with a marriage scene crumbles when the post-intermission nuptials turn out to be nothing more than the product of a vivid imagination.
While there's enough about Gordon's Emma to delight the Drowsy Chaperone and Mamma Mia! crowd as well as to engage theatergoers looking for more than pretty dresses and witty banter for their money, the musical suffers to a degree from an identity crisis. Lacking even one surefire, showstopping musical number, it may be deficient in rave appeal for Broadway-centric audiences — and potential producers. At the same time, Gordon doesn't push the more subversive elements of his Emma far enough to imbue the musical with the hard-edged street cred of, say, Rent or the current Broadway darling, Spring Awakening. Comparing the heroine to an overripe strawberry is cute, but the metaphor is hardly biting. And once Emma learns the error of her ways, the musical loses its momentum. The bad-girl Emma is naturally much more appealing than her reformed counterpart.
In the spirit of Austen's novel, Gordon's Emma is indeed not what it seems. The work undercuts its frothy, romantic-comedy veneer at every turn and we relish both its sense of breezy fun as well as its subtle underhandedness. But are these qualities enough for Gordon to secure an, ahem, Austentatious future for his fledgling musical?