Already up to our bustles in “Emma”s — including 1997’s Gwyneth Paltrow starrer and the modern-dress 1995 “Clueless” — we demand something fresh from a tuner version, and “Jane Austen’s Emma” at the Old Globe obliges. Adapter Paul Gordon artfully selects incidents from a young girl’s sentimental education; songwriter Gordon gives them witty, lyrical expression; and stager Jeff Calhoun, through minimal means, conveys the warp and woof of 1815 British country life. Vest-pocket scaled but with a big sound, the resulting distillation will enjoy a robust life in multiple venues. It’s a bloomin’ gem.
The production complements Austen’s complex romantic arithmetic with geometry. A turntable ring sweeps Highbury Village life in and out of frame, while a topiary maze in forced perspective — beautifully realized by designer Tobin Ost — reflects the infernal machinations of feckless Emma Woodhouse (Patti Murin), who’s determined to organize everyone’s lives and makes a rollicking mess of it.
The score is as intelligent as it is buoyant. Gordon’s skill with musical soliloquies, previously evidenced in “Jane Eyre” and “Daddy Long Legs,” expands as each solo becomes a dramatic opportunity for character growth. Emma, always talking herself into fantasies anyway, proves an ideal clueless narrator whose recurring motif, “I Made the Match Myself,” reveals her utter wrongheadedness in every stratagem.
We get a snapshot of her mental tumult during a piano recital: “I wish I had some talent/Why is she leaning on him?/Is this a match?/I hate my voice.”
Impoverished friend and mentee Harriet (a delightful Dani Marcus) goes through stages of “Humiliation” at a ball. And the title song, assigned to Mr. Knightley (Adam Monley), is easily the equivalent of Lerner and Loewe’s “Gigi” as a stiffneck’s discovery of a beloved to whom he’s been blind: “If I never have the chance to quite/Express what I’m most hopeful of/Then I will never know love.”
But Austen is about more than individuals’ self-expression. Gordon has her antagonists cross swords in deft passages of competing musical lines, notably in the irked quarrel between Knightley and Vicar Elton (Brian Herndon) over Emma’s painting skill in “The Portrait.” Group numbers are few, though the simultaneous conversations in “Have a Piece of Cake” make one wish Gordon had musicalized the Box Hill garden party in which Emma wounds the hapless Miss Bates (Suzanne Grodner).
The cast effortlessly exudes period style. Winsome Murin, with her startling vocal resemblance to the young Julie Andrews, is sweet to the dashingly masculine Monley’s sour, their scenes sizzling with the friction of lovers as yet insensible to their hearts’ desire.
Grodner hilariously and poignantly runs off with every scene in which she appears, as does Kelly Hutchinson with her whisky-soaked Joan Greenwood voice as the imperious Mrs. Elton.
But Emma and Knightley are a sure-fire duo, and it’s not tough to make Austen’s comic characters zing. The acid test is bringing life to the less colorful likes of Jane Fairfax, ethereal Allison Spratt Pearce for once justifying everyone’s extravagant praise and Emma’s antagonism.
Mr. and Mrs. Weston are usually little more than the heroine’s sounding board, but as they traverse the stage on the moving ring, Don Noble and Amanda Naughton offer a vivid touchstone of ideal marriage against which the other couples can be measured.
Denitsa Bliznakova’s ravishing costumes reveal class differences as quickly as an Austen sentence, and Michael Gilliam’s lights create a deliciously creamy atmosphere, exploited by Calhoun with every couple sweeping into a ballroom and every individual popping up within the maze.
The Old Globe team richly details a bygone world which, having entered, you may find yourself loath to leave.