Who knew shallow could be this charming?

"Jane Austen's Emma," which Arizona Theatre Company opened Friday, mixes the tender with the comic to bring the story of the self-possessed, wannabe matchmaker Emma Woodhouse and her world to life in a graphic-novel kind of way.

The delicious set design by Bill Forrester telegraphed the graphic-novel sense with cutouts of an orchestra and the townsfolk of early 19th century England. Oh, they all slipped away once the music started, but we knew: It was gonna be kind of an abbreviated version of Austen. Which is just fine by us: We love Austen all which ways.

That set, visible as the audience streamed into the theater, also included a dreamy Gainsborough-esque landscape backdrop beautifully lit by designer Michael Gilliam.

OK, we know, you don't go to see a play for the sets and lights. But they sure do set a mood and add an element of surprise and delight to this production.

However, the musical, directed with a lightness and focus by David Ira Goldstein and Stephen Wrentmore, would delight all by itself.

There's a big reason for that: Jane Austen.

The author has legions of fans for her books, which include "Emma" and "Pride and Prejudice" (which ATC has also staged).

Her stories are romantic, her characters compelling and her writing vivid. And Paul Gordon, who wrote the book and music for this play, honored that, incorporating Austen's language in songs and dialogue.

Emma Woodhouse, given terrific sass and silly confidence by Anneliese van der Pol, has a comfortable life in the English countryside where she cares for her hypochondriac father (a whining and wonderful Richert Easley). She loves to meddle. And meddle. And meddle.

Emma is not given to self-reflection. Or self-doubt. When she sings the opening number, "I Design the World," it is clear she indeed believes she designs the world.

It's also clear she's mighty clueless when she sings the jaunty "I Made the Match Myself."

And that is the joy of Emma - she means well, but things would just be so much better if she could order the world in the way she thinks is appropriate. Eventually, of course, she discovers that designing the world just isn't that much fun. And that she's not very good at it, anyway.

Watching her make her arrogant missteps and come to some salient self-discoveries is Mr. Knightly, a lifelong friend who isn't afraid to call her on her bad behavior.

Gordon's songs push the plot along and illuminate some of the inner dialogue that makes Austen's book so fun. If you don't leave the theater humming, you'll at least leave with a clear sense of what it was all about. But there's a tune or two in there that'll catch you (Mr. Knightly's declaration of love - "Emma, I'm helpless in your grace" - is enough to make any romantic swoon).

The composer couldn't fit all of Austen's characters and tasty moments into the play, but Gordon managed to give us the gist of the story and mostly fully fleshed-out characters, especially Emma and Harriet, the young woman of questionable birth on whom Emma decides to unleash her misguided matchmaking.

Dani Marcus' turn as Harriet, not quite with-it but big-hearted and eager to make Emma happy, is spot-on. As it should be: She has played the role in several other theaters around the country.

But it's Jill Van Velzer who pulls in most of the laughs in her limited time on stage as the busybody wife of the smarmy preacher, Mr. Elton (Brian Herndon made him appropriately unappealing). Van Velzer - helped along by an outrageous, ruffled, high-collared costume designed by Yoon Bae - has a rubbery face and keen timing. She is a hoot to watch.

Most of the men in Gordon's script don't fare as well.

While Shannon Stoeke demonstrates some impressive singing chops as Mr. Knightly, the script gives him little to work with in defining his character. The same is true of most of the other male characters.

But that's OK. If you know Austen, you know how to fill in the blanks. And even if you don't know her, you'll get the story.

This isn't a brilliant musical. But it's a creative production with top-notch actors, some lovely music and that great Austen tale.

How charming is that?


• What: Arizona Theatre Company's production of the musical "Jane Austen's Emma."

• By: Paul Gordon.

• Directors: David Ira Goldstein and Stephen Wrentmore.

• When: Performances are 2 and 7 p.m. today; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. next Sunday. Continues through Dec. 22.

• Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.

• Tickets: $32-$89.

• Reservations: 622-2823.

• Running time: About 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission.