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Good evening fellow Austen enthusiasts.
Last month, Tony nominee Paul Gordon (known to musical theatre fans for Daddy Long Legs and Jane Eyre) et al. released the Original Soundstage Recording of Gordon’s Jane Austen musical, Emma, that had also been filmed in 2018 as part of Streaming Musicals.
For review purposes I am grateful to Streaming Musicals for a physical copy of Emma that includes a beautifully printed CD booklet – lyrics included! – that offers a special insight into the production from Paul Gordon who explains the labor of love Emma has been for him these past 10 years as well as why he chose to add in a new twist by transferring this production from the Regency period to Mid-Century Modern. His ability to connect Emma Woodhouse with an equally well-beloved fictional character from the 1950s/1960s was surprising but makes for an interesting listen to the soundtrack thanks to this new information. The booklet also includes some beautiful color images of the cast from the Streaming Musicals recording (Sam Fine Photography) and a fleshed-out synopsis of the production to help those of us, who have never seen a staged production, follow along better. If you are keen to buy a copy of Emma after reading this review, I highly recommend the physical CD! FYI – a digital booklet is included when you purchase the entire album on iTunes.
And now for the music…
I’ll confess it took me a couple of times listening to the soundtrack before I warmed to it unlike my immediate love for Jane Eyre but these are two very different musicals. While Gordon’s Tony-nominated score for Jane Eyre is lush, luxurious, and memorable, Emma suffers from a case of lacking hum-able and memorable songs. The primary focus seems to be on humor and there is no denying the witty lyrics peppered throughout the album.
And Paul Gordon’s trademark lush melodies are still there but the all too brief musical numbers just begin to tickle your senses when the songs come to an abrupt ending. And while I appreciate the use of spoken dialogue on a
soundtrack to help the audience better grasp what’s happening, I found it to be somewhat distracting from the music especially given the short lengths of the songs. If only Gordon had chosen to use more sung verses versus spoken dialogue during the songs. Unfortunately, that was a common problem I had with the music. I was left wanting so much more! But I will say that his choice to place the action in the 1960s is useful in that it better matches the modern musical choices he has made including an odd lyric choice about vomiting.
“Home”, “Emma” and “The Epiphany” with honorable mentions going to “So This Is How Love Feels” and “Should We Ever Meet”.
Kelli Barrett (Broadway’s Doctor Zhivago, Wicked) as the titular character, as well as Caitlin Brooke, Lauren “Coco” Cohn, Adam Daveline, Richert Easley, Timothy Gulan, Brian Herndon, Pamela Winslow Kashani, Dani Marcus, Don Richard, Sharon Rietkerk, and Will Reynolds.
Kelli Barrett (Emma) has a gorgeous soprano that does Paul Gordon’s music justice and makes for pleasant listening from start to finish. If there’s any complaint about her performance it is just that it is all too brief with
numbers like “Badly Done” begging for more. Her leading men give BEAUTIFUL performances in their all too brief appearances on the album.
Will Reynolds (Frank Churchill) has the most beautiful duet of the show (“Home”) and my complaint once again is that it was way too short. I could have listened to his pitch-perfect charm for ages.
Similarly, our leading man, Timothy Gulan (Mr. Knightley), sings “Emma” heartily and every time he sings our heroine’s name it is like a caress giving you goose pimples.
Speaking of, it is highly recommended to listen to both “Emma” and “Epiphany” (Emma’s eleven o’clock number) together as they are two of the most repeatable and memorable numbers of the album and compliment each other grandly.
The last star of the album has to be the stunningly gorgeous ensemble (Adam Daveline, Don Richard, Pamela Winslow Kashani, Caitlin Brooke) who sound as if they are making heavenly music every time they make an appearance on the album.
Unfortunately, the weakest cast member could have been the funniest too. Dani Marcus (Harriet) is unlucky to be saddled with the odd lyric choice of “vomit” and a few too many self-pitying verses in her big number “Humiliation”.
I hasten to suggest that EMMA might benefit more from a visual performance. Due to the plot-specific lyrics it might be easier to follow along visually and see both the actors’ chemistry and character developments that are missing in the album. I have personally not had the pleasure of seeing Emma the Soundstage Musical but it is available for rental and purchase on Streaming Musicals. [UPDATE: Streaming Musicals who presented the virtual opening night of Paul Gordon’s Pride and Prejudice will be presenting a free encore presentation of EMMA on May 6th.]
As a BroadwayWorld reviewer said,
“Austen’s story combined with Gordon’s slimmed-down book and two acts’ worth of admirable original music (indeed very tuneful but not exactly memorably cast-album-rotation worthy), make for a great evening of musical theater.
Disclaimer: I received a physical album for review purposes but all opinions are my own.