EMMA, now playing at the Chance Theater in Anaheim through December 23rd, is like a perfect tea time confection. It’s lovely, sweet, and has just enough tartness to keeping it all from getting too sticky to enjoy. (Can you tell I’ve been watching a lot of “Great British Bake Off”?)
Emma (Mandy Foster) is the daughter of the landed gentry in the small town of Highbury a few hours from London. In this town she is a beloved and loyal friend, who likes to “help” in the romantic lives of her friends. Though she is well meaning, she is mostly…a disaster at it. Her good friend Mr. Knightley (Jeff Lowe), whose brother is married to her sister (“It’s complicated” as they sing in one of the songs) good humoredly keeps her in in check with his observations of her meddling.
After a small success setting up her governess with her new husband, Emma decides to double down on getting her friend Harriet (Zoya Martin) married to her perfect match. Though Harriet may have an eye for Mr. Martin (Kristofer Buxton), Emma thinks he is not the right man for her friend. There is where the efforts go awry, causing more complications and misunderstandings. Add in one courting Vicar Mr. Elton (Coleton Ray), the universally loved Jane Fairfax (Megan McCarthy), a sentiment that Emma does not share, and one charming but absent son Frank Churchill (Gavin Cole) and Emma’s world gets more comically complicated by the moment. With all of her matchmaking mischief, will she ever get the happy ending for herself?
Foster as the title character is delightful; she has a lovely voice, an enchantingly emotive performance, and a cat-that’s-got-the-cream smile which makes her Emma lovable in spite of her imperfections. As a privileged, well meaning, but oblivious meddler, she’s like the Austen version of Dolly Levi in HELLO DOLLY.
Lowe is more than a match for her as a romantic lead, with a warm singing voice, a mannered bearing, and that stoic but deeply emotional core we’ve come to expect from Austen heroes. Flirty banter but with a hint of a bite keeps the romantic tension taught through to the end.
Martin as Harriet is fantastically funny, with an excellent voice. Buxton as her hero Mr. Martin is delightfully besotted, and are the most adorable and socially awkward pair you’ll ever want to ship. McCarthy has a pretty soprano that is shown off perfectly when she takes over “Sweet Sister Mary” from Emma and plays with more facility and sings in a higher key, just further fueling Emma’s anxieties around her. Cole is suave and charming as Churchill, the potential perfect match for Emma, in her own humble opinion.
A universally strong ensemble keeps this show in harmony, in character, music, and in the stage and scene changes as they help make transitions appear seamless.
A special shout out to the Musical Director Bill Strongin who is the very talented sole musical accompaniment on the piano.
Directed by Casey Long, the musical keeps a lovely pace and a quick wit. It is staged with a very effective use of ensemble members on the edges of the stage in little vignettes, and for scene changes keep the scenes flowing smoothly into each other. Emma’s meddling also at times physically manifests as a puppet master to the unwitting victims of her machinations.
The scenic design by Masako Tobaru lets everything play out on a raked platform in the center, with plenty of rooms along the edges for side scenes and action. Large open book pages make it appear that the characters are walking out directly onto the stage from the book. Beautiful costumes by Bruce Goodrich, and projections by Kristin Campbell complete the arena for the ensemble to play upon.
EMMA is a playful musical comedy, and a wonderfully charming alternative to the holiday themed shows out around this time.
EMMA is playing through December 23rd at the Chance Theater. For ticket and show time information go to www.chancethater.com