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THEATER REVIEW: “Jane Austen’s Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy” is delightful

Let’s tell it like it is: Poor little rich girl Emma Woodhouse (Patti Murin) is a busybody who makes it her business to pair people up.

But she’s a spectacularly poor matchmaker, messing with poor little Harriet’s mind so much that it’s a wonder the girl finally escapes with enough sense left to pick her own mate.

Emma’s so bad at it that she doesn’t even recognize her own perfect match until it’s almost too late.

Emma and her coterie are the inspiration for a pair of Tony-nominated talents – composer/lyricist Paul Gordon (“Jane Eyre”) and director Jeff Calhoun (“Big River”).

“Jane Austen’s Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy” plays through March 6 (it was extended a week before previews started) at the Old Globe Theatre.

And a delightful version it is, beginning with Tobin Ost’s fabulous set: a huge labyrinthine hedge, raked steeply enough to give even the audience the vapors and apparently trapped all over so that characters can pop up and disappear at unexpected times.

Murin is cute as a button as Emma, who lives in the family estate at Hartfield with her likable recluse father (the amusingly grouchy Richert Easley).

At the top of the show, Emma loses her former governess and longtime friend Miss Taylor (Amanda Naughton) to marriage and a new name: Mrs. Weston.
Disconsolate, Emma takes on a new project: finding a husband for Harriet Smith (Dani Marcus), a 17-year-old student of uncertain but possibly important parentage at the nearby boarding school.

Harriet is sweet as can be, though perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer. After all, despite the fact that she positively lights up at the mention of (and sings adorably about) the kindly farmer “Mr. Robert Martin” (Adam Daveline) – who can make her swoon with the gift of a walnut – she still pays attention to Emma, who repeatedly steers her wrong.

There is intrigue – well, maybe confusion is a better word – surrounding several other characters, including Frank Churchill (Will Reynolds), son of Mr. Weston by a previous wife; Jane Fairfax (Allison Spratt Pearce), younger and prettier than Emma (and with better singing and piano skills), and Mr. Knightley (Adam Monley), just as sharp of tongue and mind as Emma, and who plays Benedick to Emma’s Beatrice.

Also in on the fun are local vicar Mr. Elton (Brian Herndon), Emma’s kindly aunt Miss Bates (Suzanne Grodner) and Kelly Hutchinson, both as Mr. Elton’s suddenly-chosen and wondrously annoying new wife and as Miss Bates’ wheelchair-bound mother, who seems to have been wheeled in from the set of an American sitcom.

The Regency-era setting is reflected in the music-hall feel of some of the songs, though contemporary pop gets its due as well. A quartet of accompanying musicians manages to sound bigger. And the characters are all wonderfully drawn and sung, though I wish Murin would get to the vibrato a little sooner on her high sustained notes.

And how could you not love songs with titles like Emma’s “The Conviction Of My Indifference,” “Badly Done” (sung by Mr. Knightley), and Harriet’s “Humiliation,” about being a wallflower at the ball?

“Emma” is a delightful show.

The details

“Jane Austen’s Emma: A Musical Romantic Comedy” plays through March 6 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

For tickets, call (619) 234-5623 or visit www.TheOldGlobe.org.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.