Freed from the constraints of rendering Austen’s dialogue verbatim by the demands of songwriting, Paul Gordon’s musical nevertheless captures the spirit and the pacing that makes Emma such a deeply satisfying work. The marvelous performers in the cast are more than equal to the task of translating Gordon’s music into memorable theater, and the direction, both stage and musical, is top notch.
As Emma Woodhouse, the queen bee of Highbury, Samantha Eggers is riveting. Her gradual transformation over the course of the action from a brilliant yet brittle beauty into a thoughtful, empathetic woman highlights what is most positive in Austen’s approach. Unlike the popular Kate Hamill adaptations, which play up the raw desperation inherent in the Regency marriage market, this Emma dwells on Austen’s positive values, which include self-awareness, self-respect, and the ability to recognize and admit it when one is wrong. Jenna Lea Rosen makes Harriet Smith the perfect foil for Emma’s overconfident initial manipulations, and Colin Firth gets a run for his money as the ultimate Austen dream date from Kevin Earley, who gives Mr. Knightley just the right combination of sincerity and spice.
No production of an Austen work would be complete without deliciously comic performances from secondary characters, and in this instance, those are provided by Janna Cardia, an excellent Miss Bates, and Chelle Denton, who plays several roles but nearly steals the show as the over-the-top arriviste Mrs. Elton. Austen fans rejoice; there’s a new musical in town that has your names on it.