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Emma rewards

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 -- what's coming.

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.

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