'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.
Already up to our bustles in “Emma”s — including 1997’s Gwyneth Paltrow starrer and the modern-dress 1995 “Clueless” — we demand something fresh from a tuner version, and “Jane Austen’s Emma” at the Old Globe obliges. Adapter Paul Gordon artfully selects incidents from a young girl’s sentimental education; songwriter Gordon gives them witty, lyrical expression; and stager Jeff Calhoun, through minimal means, conveys the warp and woof of 1815 British country life. Vest-pocket scaled but with a big sound, the resulting distillation will enjoy a robust life in multiple venues. It’s a bloomin’ gem.
The production complements Austen’s complex romantic arithmetic with geometry. A turntable ring sweeps Highbury Village life in and out of frame, while a topiary maze in forced perspective — beautifully realized by designer Tobin Ost — reflects the infernal machinations of feckless Emma Woodhouse (Patti Murin), who’s determined to organize everyone’s lives and makes a rollicking mess of it.
The score is as intelligent as it is buoyant. Gordon’s skill with musical soliloquies, previously evidenced in “Jane Eyre” and “Daddy Long Legs,” expands as each solo becomes a dramatic opportunity for character growth. Emma, always talking herself into fantasies anyway, proves an ideal clueless narrator whose recurring motif, “I Made the Match Myself,” reveals her utter wrongheadedness in every stratagem.
We get a snapshot of her mental tumult during a piano recital: “I wish I had some talent/Why is she leaning on him?/Is this a match?/I hate my voice.”
Impoverished friend and mentee Harriet (a delightful Dani Marcus) goes through stages of “Humiliation” at a ball. And the title song, assigned to Mr. Knightley (Adam Monley), is easily the equivalent of Lerner and Loewe’s “Gigi” as a stiffneck’s discovery of a beloved to whom he’s been blind: “If I never have the chance to quite/Express what I’m most hopeful of/Then I will never know love.”
But Austen is about more than individuals’ self-expression. Gordon has her antagonists cross swords in deft passages of competing musical lines, notably in the irked quarrel between Knightley and Vicar Elton (Brian Herndon) over Emma’s painting skill in “The Portrait.” Group numbers are few, though the simultaneous conversations in “Have a Piece of Cake” make one wish Gordon had musicalized the Box Hill garden party in which Emma wounds the hapless Miss Bates (Suzanne Grodner).
The cast effortlessly exudes period style. Winsome Murin, with her startling vocal resemblance to the young Julie Andrews, is sweet to the dashingly masculine Monley’s sour, their scenes sizzling with the friction of lovers as yet insensible to their hearts’ desire.
Grodner hilariously and poignantly runs off with every scene in which she appears, as does Kelly Hutchinson with her whisky-soaked Joan Greenwood voice as the imperious Mrs. Elton.
But Emma and Knightley are a sure-fire duo, and it’s not tough to make Austen’s comic characters zing. The acid test is bringing life to the less colorful likes of Jane Fairfax, ethereal Allison Spratt Pearce for once justifying everyone’s extravagant praise and Emma’s antagonism.
Mr. and Mrs. Weston are usually little more than the heroine’s sounding board, but as they traverse the stage on the moving ring, Don Noble and Amanda Naughton offer a vivid touchstone of ideal marriage against which the other couples can be measured.
Denitsa Bliznakova’s ravishing costumes reveal class differences as quickly as an Austen sentence, and Michael Gilliam’s lights create a deliciously creamy atmosphere, exploited by Calhoun with every couple sweeping into a ballroom and every individual popping up within the maze.
The Old Globe team richly details a bygone world which, having entered, you may find yourself loath to leave.
Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle
When someone invites you to get in at the ground floor, it is usually a ne'er do well, panhandling relative, using the occasion of a wedding, funeral or bar mitzvah, to invite you to join his Ponzi scheme or Pyramid scam.
Or more likely yet, it is a liberal arts in-law, who has not yet to come to grips with the fact that he may have to get a real job or else continue building his on-line astrological prognostication empire from a trailer park in South Dakota or a sod hut in Kansas.
Fortunately the ground floor in literature or the performing arts means something entirely different.
Getting in at the ground floor in literature means, you as a book browser, picked up a hard cover, first edition of GRAVITY'S RAINBOW back in 1974 or bought TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA back in 1967.
Or, it means you saw the ROCKY HORROR SHOW back when it was onstage in London in 1973 or Tom Stoppard's TRAVESTIES in 1975.
Or, you caught JEFFERSON AIRPLANE at the Fillmore in 1966.
Unless you are a time traveler, all those prescient windows of opportunity have slammed shut.
But you still have a chance.
Theatre Works is boldly world premiering Paul Gordon's latest romantic musical comedy: EMMA.
When one watches such musical classics as MY FAIR LADY, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, EVITA, PORGY AND BESS or KISS ME KATE, one might ask oneself, "What will be the next musical to equal one of these masterpieces?" or, "Would I even recognize the birth a new classic?"
EMMA is without a doubt the most delightful musical to hit a bay area stage in years.
As one overwhelmed critic remarked to cast member Timothy Gulan (MR KNIGHTLEY), "If the public ever gets an inkling as to how enjoyable this show is, there will never be an empty seat in the house."
Unequivocally, the namesake star of the show is the flawlessly beautiful, regally poised and radiantly effusive Lianne Marie Dobbs.
Miss Dobbs vocal skills reach the empyrean: she sings with a composed, easy, mellifluous grace that communicates sweetly and clearly with her enraptured audience.
Recrafting the novel by Jane Austen into a script, Paul Gordon has brought the wry wit of Austen up to the gleaming genius level of Shaw or Wilde or Noel Coward.
Given the stunning performance of Miss Dobbs and the strength of her character, Timothy Gulan has the prodigious challenge creating a credible Mister Knightley capable of holding a taper to Emma's charm and wit.
And, MR Gulan succeeds—in spades one might add: in the closing minutes of the show, the audience is viscerally urging the two reluctant lovers to confess their love for each other.
If grades were given to the essential elements of a show, Costume Designer Fumiko Bielefeldt would earn an A+ and a fashion spa in Milano, Sound Designer Cliff Caruthers would max out on points and have a speaker system named in his honor, and Scenic Designer Joe Ragey would get a perfect score plus a photo spread in BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS.
This show, Theatre Works 50th World Premiere, is really going places.
Years from now, your philistine neighbors will be telling you to go see EMMA—the road show production—at the hoi polloi Curran Theatre.
If you play your cards right, you be able to retort politely, "I saw EMMA when it world premiered at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts . . . I think that was back in 2007."