The Brownbrokers revisit Austen
by Bill Rodriguez
EMMA. Adapted from Jane Austen's novel by the Brownbrokers. With
Emily Young, Elizabeth Hayes, Jeffrey Kurtz, and Nick Collins. At Brown University Theatre through December 10.
Revisiting a Jane Austen novel is an ambitious undertaking. Fall short on the
sense or sensibility of the observant and wry author and you'll wish you'd
undertaken a less complex subject, like the Bible. This year's Brownbrokers
original musical at Brown University Theatre is Emma, with book, music
and lyrics by Stephen Karam. While this updated version is not as carefully
crafted as its namesake, uproarious ways have been found to create equivalent
contemporary social relationships, rules and inevitable gaffes.
This Emma Woodhouse (Emily Young) is a psychology grad student at a
Connecticut college, all the more prepared to meddle in the love lives of those
within arrow range. The story begins as in the original, with the wedding of
her confidante Jane (Elizabeth Hayes) -- here her former therapist -- leaving
Emma a bit unmoored. Since her thesis is on "love and some other things," she
can drift into romantic meddling under the guise of research. The earlier
Emma's mentor and guide into 19th-century moral rectitude, Mr. Knightley, here
is John Knight (Jeffrey Kurtz), a kindly professor 16 years her senior and a
long-time friend of the family as well as her thesis advisor. Bucking the winds
of her self-confidence, he tries to convince the brash young woman not to tell
others what to do. Fortunately for us, he fails.
The object of Emma's aid and comfort is a shy student named Harry (Nick
Collins), who intrigues her by singing the sports pages. He's gay and this is a
relatively conservative campus, but he has his eye on a cute coffee shop waiter
named Martin (Jeb Havens). The character-development of the adaptation begins
to unravel a bit here, since Harry nips his romance in the bud based on nothing
more than Emma's strong opinion that Martin isn't good enough for him. But
we're quickly distracted by the worthy replacement Emma has in mind for him --
a student in the a cappella choir, Trevor (Paco Tolson).
Needless to say, Emma's best-laid plans go astray, complicated by the
appearance of film star heartthrob Aaron Eyre (Marcos Santiago), whom Emma gets
a crush on. She also has to deal with a nemesis/rival who comes to live next
door to her for a while, Eileen Pembroke (Sarah Coogan). One of the more
entertaining running gags is that every female around breaks into song when
Aaron Eyre is mentioned, as those mellifluous syllables echo like a Gregorian
chant in a cathedral.
Along with Young's stunning performance as Emma, the songs are captivating.
The voices of the principals are as on-the-money as their acting, and the
entire ensemble nails the intricate rhythms and contrapuntal lyrics with skill
and brio. As a lyricist, Karam gives them plenty to delight us with, from the
boppy "I'm June" to the poignant "I Do Not Deserve You."
Speaking of June, along with Rachael Miller's delightfully muddled spinster
Miss Bates, Jessie Austrian is hilarious -- and nuanced -- in a comic set piece
as a perky transfer student from hell, oblivious to how obnoxiously
self-impressed her machine-gun patter comes across.
As for Young, her Emma is a dynamo of energy who starts out running and ends
up sprinting at the curtain, yet we never see her out of breath. We're talking
talent here, not just stamina. Many of Young's numbers are as intricate as any
Gilbert & Sullivan patter-song, but she breezes through them with verve and
multi-layered personality. In one called "A State of Happiness," for example,
Young packs in more unfolding internal life than some entire plays contain.
This is an original production, without benefit of out-of-town tryouts and the
resultant tinkering. So needed scene trimming and character clarifications
haven't happened. For example, Emma's personal romantic resolution comes out of
left field at the end, without the needed build-up or even much foreshadowing;
it's not enough that we know from the novel -- or Gwynyth Paltrow movie --
Choreography by Jennifer Cutler, costumes by Alicia Wolcott and lighting by
Mac Vaughey all contribute well to the tone of the show. Tracy Schultz's set
design is baffling, however, since the orchestra pit is a huge mid-stage
cut-out that couldn't interfere with the flow more if actors were streaming
into it like lemmings.
Some scenes and relationships in Emma may be woefully underdeveloped,
but that just makes even more remarkable what a good feeling this show leaves
you with. You may not find yourself walking out humming any of its intricate
songs, but that just means no interference with the grin that this musical,
zippily ringmastered by director Darius Pierce, will put on your face.