Review of Emma! A Pop Musical
Written by Eric Price
Music by various artists
Directed by Libby Oberlin
Vocal Direction by Sherrill Peterson
Choreography by LC Arisman
Sonoma Arts Live
For tickets / schedule :
Sonoma Community Center, Sonoma
RUN: March 9-19, 2017
RATING: 3 of 5 stars
(March 18, 2017)
Shakespeare plays are regularly staged in contemporary settings, and it was a matter of time before classics such as Jane Austen’s Emma received similar treatment, inspired by the success of Clueless in re-imagining her world for a modern audience. Gathered from students of Sonoma Arts Live’s education director, Libby Oberlin, these teens in training have become Highbury Prep—an elite boarding school housing the timeless characters from Jane Austen’s novel.
Emma! is not so much a musical as a chain of songs chosen to illustrate themes and emotions surfacing in the story, given voice through popular music. They are used to comedic effect, such as a rendition of “Be My Baby” that cooes across the stage whenever Harriet finds a new crush, leading to hysterical laughter when it wafts toward yet another potential beau. The result is infectious frivolity that parallels the plot’s zany matchmaking humor, with additional impact infused by the unpolished but talented young cast.
Emma’s naïveté and enthusiasm are the perfect fit for a high school student; Veronica Love captures her genuine excitement to find Harriet a boyfriend, with wide-eyed enthusiasm and an authoritative voice that speaks to leadership qualities that attract men like Elton and Knightley. Kamryn Conway as Harriet Smith is a strong singer, dominating the stage with “How Will I Know?”. The two women form a compelling duo that brings out their friendship in a way most adaptations avoid in favor of placing Harriet in a simpering, subservient role.
Alex Garber’s Miss Bates is a delightfully awkward old maid stumbling through the school balancing a martini glass and dropping one liners with precise comedic timing. A fellow scene stealer is Cooper Bingham as Jason, the ever present minion of Philip Elton, who’s reactions to the unfolding drama are perennially amusing. Preening himself for a future political career, Philip Elton (Graham Durfee) oils his way through the school with despicable ease; Durfee gives the character realistic adolescent cruelty in his dismissal of Harriet. Jeff Knightley is a difficult role to take on; Knightley balances closely guarded affection for Emma with outward criticism and an innate maturity that sets him apart from her. Max Szanyi maintains a gentleness in his lectures, reaching for her and pulling away, casting glances across the room, and avoids the trap of what Mrs. Elton would call “puppy” responses to his harbored crush.
While the dialog leaves something to be desired, Emma! A Pop Musical is creative fun that will keep your toes tapping with a cast of young actors honing their craft and enjoying the moment as students of Highbury Prep.