When staged on stage and screen, the stiff, formal dances that anchor many of Jane Austen's novels pull the characters through elliptical shapes that turn and revolve, threading them through various configurations and couplings. Hands (barely) touch and gazes (intensely) lock, but eventually—in a coy foreshadowing of the ebullient conclusion—everyone ends up with the person to whom he or she is best suited. For the most part, Emma sticks to the standard Austen formula: the heroine circles around her somewhat inscrutable true love, the requisite pratfalls ensue, yet all is resolved in the end. Joel Alden's musical reinvention of Emma (a selection of this year's New York Musical Theater Festival) is, for the most part, an enormously satisfying success. Briskly directed by Terry Berliner, the first act zips along with a graceful economy that would have made Austen proud, but in the second act, when the knotted conflicts begin to unwind, the action becomes a bit bloated. Still, an exquisite cast—led by the enthralling Leah Horowitz in the title role—makes this latest bit of Austen entertainment a delectable treat, especially for die-hard Austen lovers.
Like many of Austen's best-loved heroines, Emma is a woman ahead of her time: intelligent, witty, and fully capable of "forming her own opinions." What distinguishes the formidable Miss Woodhouse from the rest of the lot is her self-anointed gift for matchmaking. After successfully pairing off her governess, Emma takes the orphaned, lower-class Harriet under her wing. Through lessons in "posture, poise, and patience," she is determined to transform Harriet from country bumpkin into a fitting candidate for "a gentleman's wife." But Emma, so confident in reading the romantic patterns of others, is unable to see how she herself fits into the mix. She advises Harriet to pursue the solicitous clergyman Mr. Elton, while she sets her sights on the rakish Frank Churchill. Of course, things don't turn out as planned, and her old family friend Mr. Knightley hovers in the wings, patiently waiting out Emma's games so that he might make a proposition of his own.
Alden's score is well suited to his Austen endeavor—the songs are charming, if melodically repetitive, and they spool out harmlessly like the revolving wheel on a player-piano. He's written some nice harmonies for the strong-voiced cast, and he gives Horowitz ample opportunity to show off her floaty, silvery high notes in Emma's many solos.
But, without a doubt, the strongest music comes in the more animated characters' songs. As Emma's endearingly dim friend Miss Bates, Terry Palasz turns in a masterful comic performance in the peppy patter song "Jane Fairfax Wrote a Letter" (punctuated by the rhythmic snoring of her elderly mother, Mrs. Bates).
Likewise, the defiant "A Lady Stands Before You" is a spectacular showcase for the fantastic Kara Boyer. She brings such warmth and personality to the ever-agreeable Harriet that you never stop rooting for her from the moment she enters the stage. As the dependable Mr. Knightley, John Patrick Moore gives a refreshingly understated performance. Only Jesse Lawder and Ben Roseberry, as the sought-after Churchill and Elton, push the comedy schtick a bit too far.
It's quite a feat that Horowitz manages to hold her own among the superlative supporting players, and she makes the perfect Emma. A strong, fearless actress, she enacts Emma's cunning schemes with a subtle smirk and an artfully cocked eyebrow.
The spare production features clever props and costumes, including miniature houses that double as trunks. Berliner's direction is appropriately cheeky at times, with winks toward more modern conventions. I did find the anachronism of the men's costumes—jeans with period jackets and boots—a bit distracting.
As the calamities are slowly ironed out, the production loses the crispness of Austen's prose, and certain fuzzy plot points could be more clearly explicated in the last half-hour. Specifically, the secrets behind Churchill's bad reputation and the consequences of Emma's bad behavior toward Miss Bates are never clearly articulated.
Although I've read Austen's novels (and seen many of the films), this was my first time watching a stage adaptation, and there's much to be said for the experience. The live animation allows us to witness the full sting of Emma's grossly entitled behavior—her self-serving social conscience, her rather pompous demeanor, and her attempts to control Harriet ("She's almost the lady she has always wanted to be"). As a musical, Emma makes us privy to the visceral drama of class distinctions that, even through the alchemy of romance, stand firm. In Austen, personalities may clash and still make fine matches, but social spheres and pounds per year too often determine whom you can dance with.