Show #4: EMMA back in California. I’ve traveled several thousand miles since my last theatregoing experience!
This production is the fifth incarnation of this musical, having previously been featured in Mountain View, CA, Cincinnati, OH, St.Louis, MO, and New York City. I was not yet a Bay Area resident when the show first premiered at TheatreWorks in 2007, but am told by reliable sources that it was a large hit and highly memorable. I am sure that the script underwent some revision in between various productions. It seems that this version may have been in the works for a while, with possible Broadway or return to New York ambitions. In their program, the Old Globe boasts that they have sent “over 20” productions to Broadway over the years. They do have a highly esteemed reputation, and this would fit the trend of musicals receiving out of town, far distant tryouts (see also Seattle and Berkeley) before entering the massive New York theatre world.
I wouldn’t mind getting to know Emma! This musical surprised me with its tunefulness and relevance. I must add that my own relationship to musicals has improved somewhat over the last few years. For a long time, I thought of them as no more than crowd pleasers with little dramatic meat to please true theatrical aficionados. After working on a few professional musical productions and attending such shows with more regularity, I began to see the high level of technicality and artistry that goes into the process. It also helps if the librettist and composer are right there with you in the rehearsal process. Musicals also present creative challenges for the actors and artistic company. Though it has been some time since I myself acted in a musical production, I recall the debate of how much character to convey through song or simple stage presence. Sometimes creative improvisation can help with the process of engagement, so that the actors role is more fully embodied by their own research and risk taking.
The Old Globe developed a beautiful and well utilized set for Emma to hang out on. In particular, the design made frequent use of a swiveling floor, built into the thrust stage, which often carried props and actors on and offstage. This same device was used to convey the passage of time, with Emma walking hastily on it or adding or taking off layers of her deceptively simple costume. She was ably supported by a large ensemble of actors, three of whom have traveled with the show since it began at TheatreWorks. The music did not detract from the storytelling, which is often a pet peeve of mine. It seemed that the plot was expanded by the presence of the music, and several tunes lingered (and continue to remain) in my mind following the Sunday evening performance. I wondered how the writer chose to include specific plot elements, as a few threads, particularly Mr. Knightley’s change of heart towards Emma, seemed more rushed than they needed to be.
Ultimately the production was highly satisfying and had the whole preview audience on their feet by the end of the final applause. It will be interesting to see how this six week run proceeds for the theatre company and the show itself. The Old Globe is clearly aware of their audience’s needs and delights, where they have a large courtyard complex nestled into San Diego’s Balboa Park. This design makes the theatre’s exterior as pleasing and creative as what unfolds on their stages as the actors trod the boards.