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Review: In this modest musical, Jane Austen's Emma goes on being literature's perpetual busybody

Review: In this modest musical, Jane Austen's Emma goes on being literature's perpetual busybody
At the Chance Theater: Mandy Foster is Emma, who fancies herself a matchmaker, and Jeff Lowe is Mr. Knightley, who tries to set her right. (Benjamin Busch)

Jane Austen’s novels really “sing,” you might say, but some creative people aren’t content to leave that verb in its figurative state and set about musicalizing the stories.

One such project is an adaptation of her 1815 novel “Emma” by Paul Gordon that has been staged around the U.S. since 2007, including a 2011 production at San Diego’s Old Globe. The Chance Theater in Anaheim joins the list, scheduling the show as alternative holiday programming.

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Gordon’s adaptation is modest, which could be considered a drawback, but in staging it here, Casey Long, the Chance’s managing director, accepts the material for what it is and gives it a correspondingly straightforward staging.

The title character becomes exceedingly chatty because Gordon has made her the story’s narrator, requiring her to fill in all sorts of details. Although talky, the approach works because Emma is a sort of puppet master anyway. Long has the other characters wait at the sides of the playing area until Emma calls them to action.

Austen predicted that Emma would be “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” As we know, that was not the case, but the 20-ish heroine — daughter of a widowed, well-off father in an English country village — is a bit of a pill all the same. With little to occupy her other than balls and picnics, she takes up matchmaking as a hobby. It seems not to occur to her that because she herself has not yet experienced true love, she might have no idea what makes couples compatible.

Fortunately, other qualities compensate: chiefly, vivacity and wit. These are readily evident in Mandy Foster’s portrayal, and her fluttery soprano nicely conveys Emma’s lightness of spirit.

Forever materializing at Emma’s elbow to chide her for her interference is Mr. Knightley, her sister’s brother-in-law and a longtime family friend. The two have a sparky give-and-take, somewhat like Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick, that leaves little doubt they are opposites who should attract. Jeff Lowe imbues the role with gravitas and charm.

Gordon, who wrote the script, music and lyrics, also collaborated with John Caird on a musical treatment of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre,” which hit Broadway in 2000, playing for just six months but garnering five Tony nominations, including one for Gordon’s songs.

Unobtrusively flowing in and out of the dialogue, his songs here are sprightly and often comic. The melodies are so simple, though, that they make little more impression than opera recitative — at first. Give them a verse or two, though, and you may be swept along in their surging, cycling emotions. Accompaniment is by a single pianist, Bill Strongin.

Four towering books — cracked open as if in the process of being read — flank the stage. Masako Tobaru’s production design leaves the area otherwise mostly bare. Scene-setting is mostly handled by Kristin Campbell’s projections: painterly images of sitting rooms, libraries, gardens and so on. Bruce Goodrich’s costumes clothe the women in Empire dresses, the men in cutaways.

Zoya Martin as Harriet Smith and Kristofer Buxton as Robert Martin, both affected by Emma's matchmaking advice.
Zoya Martin as Harriet Smith and Kristofer Buxton as Robert Martin, both affected by Emma's matchmaking advice. (Benjamin Busch)

Truncation reduces some characters to stereotypes, but the 13 cast members contribute endearing, often humorous portrayals — particularly the quintet who are subject to Emma’s interference: Zoya Martin as bubbly Harriet Smith: Kristofer Buxton as puppyish Robert Martin; Megan McCarthy as quietly accomplished Jane Fairfax; Gavin Cole as suave Frank Churchill; and Coleton Ray as Mr. Elton, a social climber hiding behind good manners.

Despite its concision, the musical effectively captures a key strength of the novel: an understanding that love cannot be predicted or channeled; it goes where it will.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Emma’

Where: Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends Dec. 23

Tickets: $36-$45

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Info: (888) 455-4212, ChanceTheater.com

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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