Creating a new musical from source material about three centuries old can pose problems, though it worked out pretty well for “Les Misérables” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
“Jane Austen’s Emma: The Musical” is hardly in this league, though its musical version, now in residence at Anaheim’s Chance Theater, succeeds not because of its lightweight plot or antiquated antics but through the considerable talents of its onstage performers.
Director Casey Long has fashioned this period piece — whose book, music and lyrics were all written by Paul Gordon — into an attractive, if a bit overlong, production. Like South Coast Repertory’s recent “Sense and Sensibility” illustrated, 2½ hours of Jane Austen can seem like forever.
Since we’re back in the England of 1813, the stifling class system is in full force, and characters, even lifelong friends, address each other as “Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Miss” — even a married couple. Formality is the way of life, as is the “rank or station” of those involved in it.
The title character of Emma is a lovely young woman who takes pride in arranging (or rearranging) her friends’ lives — and, frankly, is quite terrible at it. Mandy Foster glistens in this role with her clueless (yes, that was the name of the modern movie adaptation) attitude and splendid singing voice.
Jeff Lowe staunchly enacts her comrade, the confirmed bachelor Mr. Knightley. Her “lower-class” friend Harriet is remarkably well interpreted by Zoya Martin, while her father, who gruffly swipes his few scenes, gets a strong portrayal from Glenn Koppel.
Others in the company function as set pieces, to be moved at will by Emma. The best of these are Megan McCarthy, quite convincing as a potential love rival and Gavin Cole, very cool as a mysterious visitor whose past is clouded in secrecy.
Robin Walton and Lulu Mack are effective as one of Emma’s rare successful matches. Coleton Ray nervously enacts an uptight clergyman and Carlene O’Neill rigorously plays the brash, self-centered out-of-towner who nails him.
Masako Tobaru’s setting consists of a platform and several chairs, deftly repositioned by the actors who sit on them on the sidelines when not performing. Scenic transitions are augmented by Kristin Campbell’s video projections depicting changing locations.
A most effective element of the show is the early 1800s costuming, headed by Bruce Goodrich, whose creations reflect time and toil. Musical director Bill Strongin provides piano accompaniment, the show’s only orchestration.
“Emma” offers more historical than dramatic significance, a mildly satirical offering with a competent cast turning back the clock at the Chance Theater in Anaheim.
Tom Titus reviews local theater.
IF YOU GO
What: “Jane Austen’s Emma: The Musical”
Where: Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim
When: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. through May 20
Cost: $31 to $45