CEDAR CITY — It was the year 2000 when the Utah Shakespeare Festival was awarded a Tony for outstanding work as a regional theatre. About that same time lyricist and composer Paul Gordon had a hit show on his hands with his musical adaptation of Jane Eyre, for which he would soon be nominated for a Tony. Now, the Utah Shakespeare Festival and Gordon (who wrote the book, music, and lyrics), along with his creative partners, orchestrators Brad Haak and Brian Allan Hobbs, have teamed up with director and choreographer Valerie Rachelle to bring another lovely literary adaptation to the stage. Jane Austen‘s Emma The Musical, like the heroine herself, may at first feel like a little too much, but by the end it warms the soul and gladdens the heart.

Show closes October 7, 2023.

The eye candy of the show is hard to resist. Jason Lajka has graced this season at the Festival with another beautiful set. Neoclassical columns and dripping wisteria vines lead the eye up to an imagined glass domed greenhouse or jewel box roof. The pale green and gold walls glow and the furniture is delicate. Lauren T. Roark‘s costumes are gorgeously detailed with textures, fabrics, and colors aiding in the storytelling of a world that is so rigidly defined by class and money. In one particular scene, where several women of various ages and social standings are gathered together, I loved seeing how a knit sweater and older gown styles were used to immediately set apart those of lesser fortune and status from Emma and her rival Jane Fairfax.

Emma’s character arc is focused on learning to behave and think with the true kindness and maturity, which is one thing she cannot simply inherit from her family name. It was nice to see the emotional roller coaster of her journey reflected in the rich and colorful lighting design by William Kirkham. His lighting aids each scene beautiful without being overly obvious.

Left to right: Laura Brennan as Harriet Smith, Rhett Guter as Mr. Knightley, and Allie Babich as Emma Woodhouse in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2023 production of Jane Austen’s Emma The Musical. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2023.)

In the leading role, Allie Babich is a perfect choice for the well intentioned miss who minds everyone’s business. Babich smiles, preens, and hits every note as if it all comes too easily. Watching her, I realized that Emma may as well serve as the inspiration for Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!: a woman of high self-esteem and social capital, smitten with her supposed ability to find love for everyone around her, but who ultimately finds her own match. Emma’s foil is her brother-in-law’s brother the curmudgeonly, but genteel Mr. Knightly. Rhett Guter is more than up to this task as the only person in Emma’s life who is willing to tell her the truth. I enjoyed the chemistry between these two as their teasing grew into something more substantial. It is a also a joy watch Guter dance on the Randall stage again, even if only for one song.

Not to be missed in this show is the ensemble of comedic characters who make up Emma’s world. Laura Brennan takes the cake as Miss Harriet Smith (Emma’s current pet project). Her song, “Humiliation,” about the relatable experience of being publicly rejected and standing alone at a party left me giggling. Jim Poulos and Marissa Swanner as Mr. and Mrs. Elton are also excellent in their roles as inept social climbers. I must also note Gilberto Saenz as the dreamy Frank Churchhill. Saenz is handsome and charming and everything that Emma — or any of the young ladies of her little town — could want, but Saenz also manages to contain all of Churchhill’s secrets.

Left to right: Laura Brennan as Harriet Smith and Allie Babich as Emma Woodhouse in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2023 production of Jane Austen’s Emma The Musical. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2023.)

Brad Carroll‘s musical direction has yielded wonderful results, even with a score that lacks pizzaz. Vocals across the cast are excellent and engaging. While there are some nice musical phrases and a few clever lyrics, there is any tune that left me humming — or even thinking back on since the curtain call. All of which rather raises a vital question: why did Emma needed to be a musical at all? While I had a lovely time watching the performance, I could not help but reflect that the production lacked the darker essence of Austen’s wit. Rather than reveling in the complex social commentary the novel explores, this musical literally dances around any such ideas. Though I am glad to have seen the many musical talents of these actors, I might have preferred a non-musical adaptation even more.

As this is my final review of the current Festival offerings, I would be remiss not to note that this is the strongest season of productions that the Festival has offered in the last dozen years. I sincerely recommend each production on the basis of its own merits. But as this is a reparatory theatre company, it is even more delightful to know visitors who make the trip to Cedar City for multiple performances will have the chance to see the many-faceted talents of Festival performers in different roles. Allow me to follow Emma’s lead by inviting you to find your own perfect matching set of performance at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this summer. You are sure to fall in love.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival production of Jane Austen’s Emma The Musical plays at 2 PM or 8 PM on select days through October 7 in the Randall L. Jones Theatre on the campus of Southern Utah University. Tickets are $30-85. For more information, visit bard.org.

This review is generously supported by a grant from the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.