It’s a novel approach to Women’s History Month. Send Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse 150 years into the future, where she practices her matchmaking by toiling as an agony aunt—Auntie Agatha, to be specific, a long-dead Dear Abby whose column she ghosts. True to the 1960s zeitgeist (and the spirit of Helen Gurley Brown), she knows there can be more to a woman’s life than mere marriage, and seeks to liberate her readership of housewives from social and sexual oppression.
Single Girls Guide is an intimate (nine-actor) musical that romps through the era with a Brill Building sound, which, thanks to skillfully written songs by Tommy Newman, doesn’t imprison itself therein. For every number with period licks and doo-wop echoes, there’s one with a more complex musical-theater construction—such as the opening “Dear Auntie Agatha,” where every needed aspect of time, place and character is nailed even as a trio of housewives pulls off Newman’s tricky cascade of overlapping lyrics.
And that only serves to introduce Kate Loprest as the redoubtable Emma, staring at us with steely eyes (under a red bouffant) across her typewriter, lamenting that the advice she gives only serves to make a woman a cross “between June Cleaver and Anne Boleyn.” She wants to be taken seriously as a reporter, to do “Something Important” with her life, “instead of wasting away every day giving answers/Like which fork and how to hold your knife.”
The plot, whimsically adapted from the first part of Austen’s novel, launches her on a do-good mission to show bashful dental hygienist Harriet Smith that there’s more to life than marriage, a pursuit played out against the lighted panels of Jo Winiarski’s versatile set, what Mondrian might have designed for a production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
It’s good that Loprest is a dynamo, belting her songs with Broadway gusto and tossing off her many comic lines with seasoned ease, because she’s up against an ensemble that otherwise might steal the thing out from under her. Farah Alvin sets up the country-mouse Harriet so credibly that her initiation into an urban social life is all the more hilarious. Nick Wyman, as Emma’s father, has the show’s funniest song, “Isn’t It About Time,” detailing the relentless deterioration that aging provokes, yet he infuses it with great character-enhancing warmth.
Robb Sapp plays Harriet’s unlikely Adonis, a gawky dental-gear supplier, without getting too cartoonish, while Susan Mosher makes astonishing transformations from office martinet to solicitous sales clerk to ‘50s mom to, believe it or not, Truman Capote. And Kelsey Kurz brings the right degree of self-absorbed smarm to the role of tobacco-fortune scion T.R. Elton.
Then there’s Nick Knightly, Emma’s boss. If we think little of actor Jonathan Rayson at first, it’s because he’s doing such a good job of establishing his sexist man’s-man kind of character before taking him to a more enlightened place by the show’s finish. And he gets the show’s best song, “Without Her,” a ballad that can be excused its Sondheim-ish rhyme-line suspensions because they work so well.
This is a world-premiere production that’s still likely to develop, so I can hope that act two’s big party number, “The Pleasure of Your Company,” tightens into more focused moments. This is where we meet Capote, lording over a party, but at this point he’s not only unnecessary but also, ironically, anachronistic by virtue of being something of an in-joke for oldsters.
It’s followed by Emma’s crisis song, “The Girl with All the Answers,” which reprises a bit of “Something Important” before falling to self-examination—but it ends up as merely sarcastic where something more insightful would have strengthened her search.
And by the time we reached “When It’s Right,” the eighth number (of eleven) in act two, I was suffering from ballad fatigue and wished we could have dispatched the thought with a few lines of dialogue instead.
But there’s far more in this show to praise. Victoria Cook and Gwen Hollander round out the ensemble, adding harmony to the songs and more attractive bodies to the dances. Choreographer Michele Lynch did a superb job of creating a big sense of movement on the theater’s small stage. Some of the scenes are linked by short, ‘50s-style health-class films, created in authentically scratchy black-and-white by Andrew Cahill.
And the small band, led from the keyboard by Zachary Dietz, who also orchestrated the numbers, gave the cast excellent support, especially considering that they were tucked out of sight on an upstage platform.
Sure, the payoff is that everybody marriageable winds up on Matrimony Street, but at that point we appreciate the fact that, for Emma, at least, it was a matter of choice, not inevitability.
You’ve come a long way, baby.