Clearly, 19th-century English writer Jane Austen is the woman of the hour — maybe even the woman of the early 21st century. Along with the opening of the films “Becoming Jane” and “The Jane Austen Book Club” — not to mention many previous adaptations of Austen’s novels for stage, screen and TV — TheatreWorks presents as its 50th world premiere the debut of a generally satisfying, feelgood musical version of her comedy of manners, “Emma,” with book, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon (“Jane Eyre”).
Austen’s novel makes much of affairs of the heart and the small-town gossip surrounding them. All is seen through the eyes of Emma (saucy and sunny Lianne Marie Dobbs), a blithely snobby, self-appointed matchmaker whose insights into the human heart, including her own, are wildly off-target.
Emma takes the socially inferior orphan Harriet (a winning, squeaky-voiced Dani Marcus), under her wing, discouraging the girl from accepting a marriage proposal from low-born Mr. Robert Martin (Nick Nakashima, wonderfully innocent and moon-faced). Busybody Emma also tries to mastermind a romance between her protegee and town preacher Mr. Elton (a smarmy Brian Herndon).
But, even when Emma’s plans go awry, she continues to meddle, much to the disapproval of her lifelong friend, the bluntly critical Mr. Knightley (a wry, low-key Timothy Gulan). And, still clueless about her own feelings, Emma flirts with the caddish Mr. Frank Churchill (an appropriately self-satisfied Travis Poelle).
Gordon has conflated the three sections of Austen’s book, necessarily compressing the action, wisely eliminating a few characters and incorporating much of Austen’s own witty text to fine effect. But in skimming over some of the relationships, he renders certain plot points — particularly the secret engagement between Churchill and the mysterious Jane Fairfax — thin, confusing and ineffectual. And overall, Emma’s bumpy inner journey toward self-awareness feels glossed over.
Elsewhere Gordon’s treatment of the material is spot-on. His Emma is, fittingly, the musical’s unreliable narrator, and it’s a nice, comic touch to make her fantasies occasionally materialize onstage before being abruptly deflated. Likewise, having her confide in us her own doubts and ambivalences works well.
The songs — many of them cleverly woven throughout — enhance the story in wonderful ways: They reveal the characters’ subtext, create a palpable sense of the endless gossip network and move the action smoothly forward.
Most memorable are Harriet’s poignant, comically recurring confessions, “Mr. Robert Martin” and “Humiliation,” as well as Knightley’s impassioned love song, “Emma”; Gulan’s voice is positively angelic. Songs are accompanied by a small orchestra, half-visible on an upstage, elevated platform.
Under TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley, the action plays out seamlessly on a trim, bare-bones set that shifts from scene to scene without undue fanfare. A climactic ballroom scene, with some formal dancing, is particularly elegant, and lighting subtly moves from face to face to illuminate barely concealed emotions.
The cast is uniformly strong in both singing and acting skills, with an especially comical Suzanne Grodner as good-natured chatterbox spinster Miss Bates.
If this “Emma” lacks the nuances and complexity of Austen’s novel, and opts for sentimentality at times when edgier choices would connote more depth, it’s nevertheless a charmer.