It is a universally acknowledged truth that a Jane Austen story, with several film and television versions, must be in want of a musical re-write. At least Paul Gordon, the creative genius behind “Jane Austen’s Emma,” on stage through Jan. 20 at Herberger Center Theater, thinks so. His hilariously dazzling production, produced by Arizona Theatre Company, makes it difficult for Austen novices or fans to disagree.
From the moment Emma, played by former Disney Channel star Anneliese van der Pol, comes out singing “I Design the World,” audience members are hooked. Despite van der Pol’s somewhat brassy vocals, she artfully portrays the proud and petulant heroine who believes she controls love and destiny. A series of comical missteps with the ill-guided and giddy Miss Smith (Dani Marcus), willful blindness and a medicinal dose of humiliation teach Emma otherwise.
“Emma goes through a journey to becoming a woman, getting redeemed and falling in love,” said co-director Stephen Wrentmore. “Austen said she wrote a character only she could love. You have to understand that at times Emma is not a very nice girl. She must be redeemed and you fall in love with her,” he said.
It’s that razor sharp look at love that keeps the nearly 200-year-old story contemporary, said Wrentmore. “I think one of the things that’s core to Austen and spans generations is falling in love. There’s something about exploring that moment. Austen does that with microscopic precision. Audience members are able to see that immediately,” he said.
Just like they can see Gordon’s emphasis on Austen’s characteristically dry wit, which he amplifies slightly at times to the gleeful amusement of the audience.
“When I tackle a brilliant novel by Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austen, I try to stay as true as possible to the author’s words,” said Gordon, whose score for Broadway’s 2001 version of “Jane Eyre” received a Tony nomination. “I might cut things down or change things here and there to move the scene along, but I’m always amazed that some screen or television writers will change her dialogue totally,” he said. “I try to imagine what Jane Austen would say if she were collaborating on it, which of course she is against her will.”
Gordon undoubtedly has a knack for witty words and charming music, but he is no Rodgers or Hammerstein. Instead of using ongoing music to tell the story, Gordon punctuates his creation with well-timed moments of dialogue. This, in addition to the constant movement of Bill Forester’s beautiful set pieces, keeps the momentum moving forward, culminating in the leading lady’s favorite scene — Mr. Knightly’s proposal.
“It’s when they get together and you don’t know if they’re going to get together,” van der Pol said. “I feel like it’s the most honest. We get to be funny and the audience loves it.”
Opening night audience members definitely loved it, readily responding to the story’s humor, angst and romantic triumph.
“It’s awesome,” said Sue Berliner, on her off-night as a professional audio describer for the visually impaired at Herberger and Phoenix theaters. “I was never a big fan of Jane Austen and I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “Their animation and facial expressions are awesome.”
“I think it’s delightful,” fellow theatergoer Wanda McHatton said. “It makes me want to go home and read the book.”
Those who’ve read the book will want to see the show. There’s no Jane Austen interpretation quite like it.
IF YOU GO
What: ”Jane Austen’s Emma”
When: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10; 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12; and 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13; runs through Jan. 20.
Where: Herberger Center Theater, 222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix.
Information: (602) 256-6995 or www.arizonatheatre.org.
Contact writer: (480) 898-5629 or email@example.com