Devotees of Jane Austen book clubs, movies and television miniseries likely will find much to savor in Emma, the lilting musical adaptation of Austen's 1816 novel about self-delusion, class decorum and the perils of meddlesome matchmaking that's receiving a sumptuous staging at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. This chamber musical is a visual delight. Scenery, costumes and lighting offer a rose-colored view of sedate country life during the English Regency period in Highbury, a village south of London.
So much visual splendor provides an apt setting for the ebullience of Paul Gordon's music and lyrics, which are readily accessible on a first hearing. In tune with the show's rustic motif, a small chamber quartet (piano, oboe/English horn, cello, violin) perches in a sort of bird's nest above the set. The orchestrations are graceful and civilized; lightness is the order of the evening.
In addition to composing the pleasant songs, Gordon also wrote the script. Here he has not been so successful. For in seeking to wedge so much of this tangled plot (about a rambunctious, egoistic young girl who ruins the lives of her friends for little reason other than that she has too much time on her hands) into a musical comedy book, the adaptor has made some dubious choices. For starters, Gordon's libretto is too faithful to the novel. In order to cram in so much exposition, we are restricted to snapshots rather than drawings of too many characters. For instance, on the page the insufferable Mrs. Elton (the minister's pretentious wife) sucks the very air out of any scene in which she appears. Onstage, because she is relegated to the background, she is more of a nuisance than a termagant.
Then there is Miss Bates, surely one of Austen's most memorable creations: a garrulous spinster, a dreary bore, yet lacking a single mean bone in her body. Emma's unthinking public humiliation of Miss Bates should be a climactic, breath-stopping moment of piercing pain. Yet as written and staged here, this potentially pregnant moment is merely another incident in a checklist of incidents, to be gotten through as quickly as possible so that we can move on to the next dramatized incident. Although Emma succeeds as a droll display of foppery and nonsense, it fails to persuade us that Austen's story still resonates nearly 200 years after it was written. To the contrary, the doings here all seem so trivial.
In his pursuit of an evocation of the period (or at least what he deems the period to have been), director Robert Kelley's staging is not so much stylish as it is mannered. That's mannered as in mannequin: All this curtsying and bowing deflates the evening of so much as a breath of life. Kelley has allowed his title character to devolve into a kind of wind-up doll. In the title role, Lianne Marie Dobbs' Emma is chirpy and pert — and doesn't she know it.
Watch for the contrivances as Dobbs spiritedly sings: Her hands caress her cheek, just for so long and no longer; now a studied flip of the fingers into the air; next, arms outstretched as if she's a human kite. It's all so affected. There's not a spontaneous movement or moment in her entire blithe portrayal. Such artificial performing harkens back to the gymnastic Delsarte system of declamation that was popular in the 1890s.
Emma is not without its visual and auditory charms. And if the zealous opening-night audience was any measure, it would seem that the Rep has a hit on its hands. Yet a minority report would suggest that those viewers who are not already Austen devotees run the risk of finding Emma a much longer, and far less involving, evening than it intends to be.