'Emma' is a joyous gift
Paul Gordon's brilliant musical makes its reprise,
polished and matured from its 2007 premiere
By John Orr
December 7, 2015
It's easy to see why "Emma" became the best-selling show in the long history of TheatreWorks in its 2007 world premiere at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
"First of all, it is a glorious experience in the theater," as TheatreWorks Founder and Artistic Director Robert Kelley said in an interview last week.
And it seems likely that the latest version of the show, tweaked by playwright, composer and lyricist Paul Gordon, and directed by Kelley, is going to be even more popular this month at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.
Which is to say, if you care about theater, especially musical theater, what you want for Christmas this year is tickets to see "Jane Austen's 'Emma,'" which is a marvelous and delightful show.
And guess what? The Lucie Stern Theatre was packed on opening night, and it is highly likely that lots of people are not only going to want to see it once, they'll want to go back for repeat views. Tickets will get sold, so get yours soonest. Word is that the entire run, through January 2, 2016, is close to selling every ticket.
On my way home on opening night, I found myself being sad. Because I was no longer in the theater, watching and listening to "Emma." The title song is a lovely ballad, and it continued to sing in my mind for hours, and I woke up on Sunday thinking of it.
Gordon has to be called brilliant, because his book for the show takes the key parts of the Austen novel and makes the best two-hour play of them; he finds every scintilla of humor in the story and has the audience roaring with laughter; and his lyrics and music both advance the story in impressive ways.
As a musician myself, I was mesmerized by the beauty of Gordon's score, and incredible talent of the cast members and the orchestra that deliver it. "There's lots of arpeggiation," said Music Director William Liberatore after the show. He is the one who delivered the complicated and delightful keyboard parts with considerable skill.
Lianne Marie Dobbs as Miss Emma Woodhouse is hilarious, charming, beautiful, strong-willed and opinionated, and sings with pure and powerful voice that makes Gordon's complex melodies seem as natural as breathing.
Dobbs' Emma brings us, the audience, into her immediate friendship, talking to us directly, most often in song. She's not just thinking aloud, as in a soliloquy, she is speaking directly to us, confiding in us with wit and charm about her complex social machinations.
Emma thinks herself to be a masterful matchmaker, and delights in attempts to manipulate romances, although she is quite sure she never wants to marry. But she does have an interest in at least one man, Mr. Frank Churchill, who is more myth and fantasy than man to her, at least at first.
Meanwhile, there is Mr. Knightley, who has been a friend of Emma's since her childhood, and who is very critical of her schemes, and lets her know it, before giving up in disgust and looking for another snifter of brandy.
Emma and Mr. Knightley, who is played with an impressive mixture of Regency sophistication and earthy grit by Timothy Gulan, seem to spend a lot of time together, even if often at odds. This is a good thing, because Dobbs and Gulan both have great voices and sing very well together, on the sardonic "I Made This Match Myself," "Relations," "The Argument," and other tunes. They hit the harmonies, they hit the counterpoint phrases. It is beautiful music-making.
Dobbs and Gulan originated the roles in the 2007 production.
That beautiful ballad that haunted me on the way home is the romantic song "Emma," delivered with great emotion and beauty by Gulan.
A subject of Emma's matchmaking meddling is Miss Harriet Smith, who is played, hilariously, by Leigh Ann Larkin, a beautiful young woman who pulls out all the stops to make herself look goofy in reaction to things Emma says. A wonderful comedic performance. Miss Smith is really in love with Mr. Robert Martin, who is played equally hilariously by Nick Nakashima, who originated the role in 2007.
Another great comic performance is by Richert Easley as Mr. Woodhouse, who doesn't like change.
A key to comedy on stage is timing, and this entire cast could reset an atomic clock with great timing. Everybody waits just the right length of time to deliver the line that will draw the laughter, and it is a great joy to watch them.
Part of the fun of this show also depends on great timing between Liberatore and the excellent lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt, who collaborate as Emma introduces someone new to the show. Liberatore hits a "ding!" note and Mannshardt's spot illuminates that character, standing at the front of the audience. (True, they may have set it up so Liberatore does both things at once, but Mannshardt's design makes it work.)
Travis Leland, as Mr. Churchill, is one of the characters who is introduced that way, with a big, toothy smile that draws a big laugh.
Lighting also plays a key role in Emma's many asides to the audience. The rest of the cast on stage is cast in shadow, while Dobbs stands with bright and shiny smiles close to the audience.
A gifted TheatreWorks regular, Sharon Rietkerk, is on hand as the beautiful and talented Miss Jane Fairfax, who causes a fire of jealousy to burn in Emma. Her voice is magnificent in this show.
Joe Ragey's set is fun, bringing us to Regency manors, gardens and ballrooms with a little help from upstage projections. Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes are beautiful, and will be all the rage at the next Anything Goes costume gala (all the Regency era costumes were withheld from that event in October, for this show.) Many thanks to sound designer Jeff Mockus, who delivered all the dialogue and the music with clarity. And hats off to the orchestra, which included Liberatore, Carol Kutsch on violin, Peter Lemberg on oboe and English horn, and Kris Yenney on cello.
It's a huge cast — 16 players — which seems to be the practice for TheatreWorks holiday shows, which the troupe considers its yearly gift to its audiences.
And what a joyous gift this is. Don't miss it.