It is a truth universally acknowledged that a theater company in possession of a season’s programming must be in want of something by Jane Austen to fill at least one of its slots. In an era of stage Austen ubiquitous, Ensemble Theatre Company has gone a step beyond even the redoubtable Kate Hamill and her freewheeling office chairs to discover an Austen musical, Emma, by the talented Paul Gordon.
Directed by Andrew Barnicle, who brought us the delightful Austen continuation, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, in 2017, Gordon’s Emma promises to marry the writer’s legendary sophistication with the kind of sparkling musical invention that the composer has demonstrated in previous successes such as the Tony-nominated Jane Eyre and the Ovation-winning Daddy Long Legs. All 12 cast members in Emma will sing, sometimes all at once, and “there’s more music than book,” according to Barnicle.
In an ingenious adaptation of Austen’s groundbreaking rhetorical strategy of “free indirect discourse,” Emma will appear at the top of most scenes to narrate the story through a series of direct address monologues. As any devoted Janeite will surely tell you, it’s the subtle comic intensity of Austen’s narrative voice that sets her work apart from pretenders to the crown of queen of the English novel. While the Austen marriage plot invariably drives on toward compulsory conjugality, shameful celibacy shelters behind the perfect — and perfectly impersonal — satisfactions of Style. It will be interesting to see how Gordon sets the Austen narrator, in all her knowing nothingness, to music.
As in opera, character in Emma ties directly to vocal range. This is why the show’s music director, Brent Schindele, had to be so involved in the casting process. The result is a cast that’s heavy on ETC debuts and full of formidable singers. Look for sparks to fly when Anna Mintzer as Jane Fairfax gets into a sing-off with Emma, as played by Samantha Eggers.
4•1•1 | Jane Austen’s Emma, A Romantic Musical Comedy previews February 6-7 and shows through February 23 at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.). See etcsb.org or call (805) 965-5400.