By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
The perfect Christmas gift is now playing at the downtown Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. We’re talking about the Arizona Theatre Company’s bright and frothy (emphasis on frothy) production of “Jane Austen’s Emma” by Paul Gordon (who also adapted “Daddy Long Legs” to the stage).
Co-directors Stephen Wrentmore and David Ira Goldstein have whipped up a theatrical confection so tempting even the most recalcitrant husband will have softened up by the time Emma (a shimmering Anneliese van der Pol) has realized she may have lost a chance for her one true love.
The early 19th century writer Jane Austen (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Emma”) conceived of her protagonist as a sunny young woman who valued order in life and sincerely believed it was her responsibility to restore that order to the lives of others at every opportunity.
While many acquaintances snorted that Emma should just mind her own business, Emma refused to be discouraged. She fancied herself an especially good matchmaker.
There are no stuffy literary pretensions on this stage. Van der Pol has star quality beaming from her face and filling her voice. The lyrics to Gordon’s songs are often quite clever, which gives the songs an even more shimmering quality.
All the main characters have strong voices as well, which hasn’t always the case in musicals playing Tucson. Spinning in Emma’s circle of friends is the often flummoxed though well-meaning Harriet Smith (Dani Marcus), the swoon-worthy Frank Churchill (Colin Hanlon) and quick-thinking quipster Mr. Knightly (Shannon Stoeke). In a smaller but significant role is Jamison Lingle as elegant Jane Fairfax.
No extra knowledge of English literature is needed to appreciate “Jane Austen’s Emma.” Rather the opposite is true. Persons of letters may sniff that Gordon’s animated adaptation is too superficial.
We’re talking holiday happiness here, remember? Adding some good taste to all that good cheer only makes everything better.
As you might expect from a 19th century costume musical comedy, the gowns designed by Yoon Bae are not only lovely but have an elegant flow which contrasts nicely with the scenic design of Bill Forrester, who keeps the entire stage as airy and light as the story itself. While the scenery is always changing, it always maintains a kind of painterly atmosphere like those mannered landscapes hanging so proudly in art museums.
The plot begins with Emma having some early matchmaker success that encourages her to try some more. Soon enough, Emma has not only tangled up the lives of several friends, she finds herself attracted to someone who could break her heart.
Not to worry, of course. In the end, everyone ends up with the right partner so all can live happily ever after.
“Jane Austen’s Emma” continues through Dec. 22 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave., in performances at various times Tuesdays through Sundays. Tickets begin at $32. For details and reservations, 520-622-2823, or visit www.arizonatheatre.org