183 years before Hate At First Sight turned into Happily Ever After for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail, a bickering Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley finally realized they were Made For Each Other in Jane Austen’s Emma. As fans of the 1996 movie adaptation (starring a very British Gwyneth Paltrow) or the more recent Pride And Prejudice (with Keira Knightley—no relation to George—as Emma’s literary cousin Elizabeth Bennet) are well aware, contemporary romantic comedies owe more than a minor debt of gratitude to Miss Austen.

Now, eleven years into the 21st Century, 1815’s Emma is back—and singing her Regency heart out—in Jane Austen’s Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy, Paul Gordon’s splendid musical adaptation of Miss Woodhouse’s misadventures in matchmaking, currently enchanting audiences at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre.

Modern-day romcom lovers will find all the elements of their favorite literary genre here, from Emma and George’s initial sparring, to the cast of quirky characters who surround them, to the eleventh hour crisis that makes it seem that all is lost for our heroine and hero, to the final fadeout which leaves audience members wiping away tears of joy.

Our heroine is Miss Emma Woodhouse (Patti Murin), a precocious 20-year-old who, convinced that she will never find herself walking down the aisle with her Prince Charming, takes it upon herself to find mates for the single souls around her.

Among them is Harriet Smith (Dani Marcus), the “natural child” of goodness only knows who, whom Emma is convinced might well be the illegitimate daughter of royalty. Believing that a royal, even one of unknown parentage, would be entirely too blue-blooded a spouse for farmer Robert Martin (Adam Daveline), Emma picks her own match for Harriet, a well-mannered but dull vicar named Philip Elton (Brian Herndon). Unfortunately for Harriet, Mr. Elton only has eyes for Miss Matchmaker herself, feelings which Emma cannot requite. Rejected, Elton leaves town, returning not long after with a moneyed bride named Augusta (Kelly Hutchinson), a well-bred young woman with a laugh that would curdle fresh milk.

Further complicating the romantic mix are Frank Churchill (Will Reynolds), a drop dead gorgeous visitor from London who immediately catches Emma’s eye, and Miss Jane Fairfax (Allison Spratt Pearce), a beautiful orphan who plays the piano entirely too well for Emma’s liking. Add to that a half-dozen or so of Emma’s friends and family members with at least as many quirks as Nora Ephron gave her supporting characters in You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless In Seattle and you have one marvelous (and in the case of Emma The Musical) melodious mix.

It’s hard to imagine a better creative force to adapt Jane Austen’s Emma for the musical theater stage than Gordon, Tony-nominated for Broadway’s Jane Eyre and winner last week of the Ovation Award for his score for Daddy Long Legs. Gordon’s songs run the gamut from the witty “I Made The Match Myself” (“I made the match myself, in point of fact. Who can trust such things to chance when I can be exact?”) to Harriet’s hilarious lament “Humiliation” (“Is that Moët & Chandon? I’ll drink the whole bottle and vomit on somebody’s gown.”) to Mr. Knightley’s uber-romantic “Emma” (“Emma, the dawn breaks with your smile”), the latter song recalling Gaston’s astonishing realization that he’s fallen in love with Gigi.

Gordon’s book manages to compact Austen’s novel into under two and a half hours, maintaining a delectably tart Austenian tone while peppering it with just enough winking humor (Robert Martin has been reading “Pride And Prejudice” and “Sense And Sensibility” and is not all that impressed) to keep it fresh and delightful for a contemporary audience.

Though Emma-at-the-Globe is not the musical’s first production, it is the first to benefit from Tony-nominated director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun, whom Gordon credits for the modern sensibility he brings to Austen’s classic story. Though dance sequences are few, they are delightfully choreographed and performed, particularly a waltz which allows couples the then shockingly modern chance to dance in each other’s arms.

Murin makes Emma so adorably cute that one forgives the character’s more insufferable moments, bringing to the role a perky charm and one heck of a Broadway belt. As Mr. Knightley, a golden-voiced Adam Monley is the next best thing to Colin Firth, the highest compliment I can pay his pitch-perfect cousin to Pride And Prejudice’s (and Bridget Jones’ Diary’s) Mr. Darcy. Marcus (as Harriet) combines the comedic gifts of Carol Burnett and the vocal tones of Julie Andrews, and you can’t get much better than that. Reynolds is as impossibly handsome as Frank Churchill should be, and terrifically talented to boot. Daveline brings a goofy charm to Robert Martin, Herndon is a deliciously stuffy Mr. Elton, and Pearce is pretty perfection as the too-too perfect Jane Fairfax. Suzanne Grodner scores laughs aplenty as Jane’s garrulous aunt Miss Bates and a splendid Hutchinson gets just as many as Mrs. Elton—with a laugh to rival Gertie’s in Oklahoma!. (Hutchinson doubles effectively as Jane’s grandmother Mrs. Bates.) Competing the all-around smashing cast are Richard Easley as Emma’s curmudgeonly father Mr. Woodhouse, Amanda Naughton as Mrs. Weston, former governess (and warm-hearted mother figure) to our heroine, and Don Noble as Mr. Weston, whose marriage to Mrs. Weston is Emma’s first matchmaking success.

Almost as much a character as Emma’s singing-dancing-romancing ensemble is scenic designer Tobin Ost’s quite extraordinary set, a mammoth garden maze (the kind without which no English estate could be complete) which not only reflects Austen’s plot’s many twists and turns but out of which revolve the elegantly furnished rooms where these plot twists unfold. Ost has raked the maze steeply enough for us to see whoever is inside it, characters popping up, out, and into the action at a moment’s notice. (Emma’s Act Two opener, “Pride And Sense,” has all twelve cast members singing from various corners of the maze.) Denitsa Bliznakova has created a bevy of elegantly detailed period costumes, Michael Gilliam lights the stage as if by a radiant English sun or romantic English moon, and John H. Shivers and David Patridge’s sound design is impeccably clear.

Musical director Laura Bergquist conducts Emma’s four-piece orchestra, which sounds like fourteen when playing Gordon and Brad Haak’s sumptuous orchestrations. James Vasquez is assistant director, Brad Haak music supervisor, Robert Barry Fleming vocal and dialect coach, and Thomas J. Gates stage manager.

With Daddy Long Legs’ recent Ovation Award victories (even as it continues to enchant audiences, most recently in La Mirada and Laguna Beach), Emma further cements composer-lyricist-book writer Gordon’s position as the most romantic of our contemporary musical theater composers. Sparklingly tuneful, witty, and romantic as all get-out, Jane Austen’s Emma is a romcom-lover’s musical dream come true.

Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
–Steven Stanley
January 23, 2011
Photos: Henry DiRocco

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