You know the story: A young woman, a bit too obsessed with who’s cool and who’s not, sets out to make the world a better place by fixing up her friends with the perfect boyfriends and girlfriends. She gets it all wrong. Feelings are hurt. She’s especially mistaken in regards to who she belongs with herself. More feelings are hurt. Tragedy strikes. And in the end, true love prevails, sort of.
Then everybody dances.
This, more or less, is the plot to Jane Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma,” a tale of love, class and English tea parties that is as popular today as it was when first published.
“Jane Austen’s themes and sensibilities transcend time,” says Libby Oberlin, director of Sonoma Arts Live’s Teens ‘N Training program, and the director of the brand-new show, “Emma! A Pop Musical,” opening a three-week run this weekend at Andrews Hall. Based on Austen’s novel, the musical is now set in an American prep school, and features re-purposed songs from ’50s and ’60s “girl groups” and contemporary anthems from the likes of Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles.
There are, of course, a number of love songs.
“Love, friendship and self-reflection are all themes that are present in Jane Austen’s work,” says Oberlin. “These are emotions that are universally sought and universally expressed.”
In other words, the novel may have been written 200 years ago, but young people today can still identify with what Austen’s characters struggled with. Not that the cast of “Emma!” have necessarily read the book.
“We’ve definitely got a copy of ‘Emma’ kicking around backstage,” says Oberlin, “and we’ve found a way to work the book into the environment of the show – but only a few of the teenagers have actually read it.”
Several cast-members have seen the 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow film version, and the even better-known 1995 adaptation “Clueless.” According to Oberlin, the biggest culture-shock the cast has experienced is in learning the pop songs, many of which predate their own lives by decades.
“One of the reasons I chose ‘Emma’ was because of the diversity of the songs in the show, which span from the ‘50s to today,” says Oberlin.
Oberlin admits she grew up listening to her own parents playing Motown, oldies, classic rock, and what she lovingly refers to as “whiny chick music” – Juice Newton and Linda Ronstadt – and says it is rewarding to see the affinity that the kids in her cast have been developing for such songs.
“The actors are really having fun with the music,” she says. “Some of them vaguely know artists like the Supremes or Pat Benatar – they just don’t know them as well as the older generations who’ve grown up with that music being a part of their cultural lexicon.”
Asked if the cast members have been truly identifying with the themes and relationships of Austen’s Regency-era story, Oberlin says, “Absolutely! This is the fifth show I’ve directed for Sonoma Arts Live – four of those being Teen’s ‘N Training plays – and the criteria we’ve always had when choosing TNT shows is for the musical to contain relatable characters, around the age of our actors, who deal with issues relevant to the experience of today’s teenagers.”
It’s a matter of “type-casting,” to a degree.
Asked what moment in “Emma!” she enjoys watching the most, Oberlin chooses a scene from the end of the play.
“It has to be when the two characters, Emma and Jeff, finally admit their feelings to each other in the simplest and most sincere way,” she says. “‘I like you,’ Emma says. ‘Good, because I like you too… a lot.’”
Adds Oberlin: “You don’t find the eloquence of Austen, perhaps, but you do feel the sincerity and believability of the moment.”