“Emma” – Arizona Theatre Company

This review aired on KBAQ January 7, 2013


Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

When a new musical is announced by a local theater, there’s a great deal of excitement.  Could the musical go on to Broadway fame and success?  Unfortunately, when the musical is “Emma,” Arizona Theatre Company’s boringly draggy show with a lackluster score, even the commendable production can’t save it.

It’s based on Jane Austen’s well regarded novel, so what happened?  “Emma’s” plot plods on and on as the central character tries to plan and execute the romantic endeavors of every character.  Her meddlesome machinations are tediously slow and she’s blind to her own romantic feelings.

When the novel debuted in 1815, such goings on were common.  Today, this kind of manipulative malarkey is foreign.  People plan and understand their own romantic feelings.  Although the novel was well received when it appeared, there was criticism even back then about the lack of story.

That appears to be the musical’s major problem.  The dull-witted story goes on and on.  It’s not believable today so as it slogs on, it becomes weary.  It runs two and a half hours, a normal length for contemporary musicals, but since Emma’s an intelligent young lady of 20 her slow realization of her own romantic intentions is simply unbelievable and tiresome.  About the only thing that the musical brings to life is Austen’s elegant language that adaptor Paul Gordon captures here and there and Austen’s ability to capture this period of English history.  It’s not enough to make the musical worthwhile.

Audience comment opening night was not favorable and I did not overhear one patron who praised the show.  The slow-evolving standing ovation only started lethargically when a single person jumped to their feet at the show’s conclusion.  It was not a natural outgrowth of unanimous audience acceptance.

No problem with the ATC production but why put the resources into such a mediocre show?  The painterly sets evoke the era as do rich costumes and moody lighting.  The cast couldn’t be better from Anneliese van der Pol’s clipped British decorum but strangely comic acumen as Emma to Shannon Stoeke’s starchy Mr. Knightly, the only character critical of Emma and the man who ultimately captures her.  There isn’t a weak performance in the large ensemble with Dani Marcus’s Harriet and Colin Hanlon’s Frank Churchill standing out.  Directors Stephen Wrentmore and David Ira Goldstein bring much creativity to the show but they never succeed in getting the story to move swiftly.  And Gordon’s lackluster score and ponderous adaptation of the novel fail to bring life or interest to the antiquated story.

The meanderingly dull “Emma” continues through January 20 at the Herberger Theater Center.  For tickets, call the Arizona Theatre Company box office at 602-256-6995 or order tickets online at www.arizonatheatre.org.

Grade: F