nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
October 2, 2007
There were a great many people in the audience of Emma who seemed to enjoy it immensely. They laughed and hooted and howled throughout, and clapped vigorously at end. However, there were also a number of people, like myself, who were less enchanted by this new musical adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel. Emma, as adapted by Joel Adlen, is a campy musical farce: it's Jane Austen for the YouTube generation.
The story of Emma is well-known. Emma Woodhouse is the only daughter of a widowed and well-to-do English gentleman, and as a result, has had the run of her household from an early age, essentially doing whatever she pleases. When her first attempt at matchmaking between her governess, Miss Taylor, and the gentleman, Mr. Weston, is a triumphant success, Emma decides that she has a particular knack for matchmaking. What follows are Emma's attempts at further matchmaking, based on her understanding of who people are and what love is. This understanding, however, is based more on a vague ideal and less on life experience, of which she has precious little. The result is disastrous and, as can be expected, both funny and touching.
But while Emma goes full force towards being funny, it falls short of being touching. Emma, as written and performed in this adaptation, does not win our hearts. Though blessed with a lovely voice, Leah Horowitz as Emma doesn't have quite the charisma to carry the show. Adlen's book, with the aid of Terry Berliner's direction, sets up the musical so that it never dwells on one scene or location too long before moving on to the next. The result is a constant feeling of being led by the nose through this story, rather than actually experiencing it along with the characters.
The other performances don't do much to help this feeling. Overall, they range from over-the-top to bland and non-committal, with not very much in between. Ben Roseberry as Mr. Elton, the vicar Emma is trying to set up her friend with, mugs shamelessly, without regard for character or circumstance. Jesse Lawder is much the same as Frank Churchill, a foppish, melancholic rogue who everyone seems be in love with. He does his very best to get as many laughs as he can in his time on stage—and frequently succeeds. It seemed that every time he pranced across the stage, everyone around me was in stitches. However, the over-the-top nature of his characterization seemed out of place, forced for the sake of laughs.
Adlen's music, however, is to be admired. While the musical is stylistically campy and self-referential, the music leans away from contemporary pop, and towards classic Broadway, and light classical music. Despite the conflict that might seem inevitable in the meeting of these two styles, Adlen makes it work.
Overall, the majority of the audience enjoyed the show. The comedic hamming that seemed so egregiously out of place to me was eagerly accepted and appreciated by many in attendance. If that is your cup of tea, you might very well enjoy Emma.