A CAPTIVATING PRODUCTION OF PAUL GORDON’S “JANE AUSTEN’S EMMA”
A CAPTIVATING PRODUCTION OF “EMMA THE MUSICAL”
I revisited the TheatreWorks production of Paul Gordon’s “Jane Austen’s Emma. I review production for talkinbroadway.com when TheatreWorks first presented the world premiere in 2006. I found this production as charming as when I saw it the first time. Several members of the cast have returned to reprise the role such as Lianne Marie Dobbs as Emma, Timothy Gulan as Mr. Knightly and Brian Herndon as Mr. Elton. It has also been tightening a bit to make it even more delightful. You don’t have be a Jane Austin to appreciate this new musical version of the Jane Austin novel.
Paul Gordon witty book, adroit lyrics and insinuative score are positively enchanting. One can hear a Sondheim mode in several of the songs such as the complex “The Portrait” or “This is How Love Feels”. One of the highlight is the song “Humiliation” a haunting song about Harriet’s poignant, comically repetitive feelings when no one asks her for a dance at the ball in the second act.
“Jane Austin Emma” brings one the literature delightful heroines to life. It tells the story of Emma Woodhouse, the 19th century spoiled daughter endowed with wealth, good looks and stature who prides herself on her matchmaking skills. She decides to match the new vicar and selects her lowly born friend Harriet Smith. The problem here is that no one knows Harriet’s parents which were very important in polite society in the 1800s. Also Harriett is in love with farmer Robert Martin. The ringer is that the vicar is in love with Emma and proposes to her. Her house of romantic cards start to crumble after this set back
However Emma continues to meddle in love affairs much to the disapproval of her life-long friend Mr. Knightley. Emma is also clueless as to her own feelings, even when flirting with handsome Fred Churchill. All of her good intentions backfire, leading to a short-lived of comic complications and finally true love.
The cast is pitch perfect with wonderful British accents thanks to Dialect Coach Richard Newton. Lianne Marie Dobbs the role she proudly originated. She once again is enchanting as Emma. Her vocal cords are untainted and iridescent not only beautiful to hear but necessary for a musical where so much of the music is narrative. Timothy Gulan reprises the role of Mr. Knightley. He has strong powerful vocal chops when singing the song about loving a woman and mentions “skin against skin”.
Leigh Ann Larkin is delightful playing the colorful ineffectiveness Harriet. She has a wonderful naive voice and her rendition of “Mr. Robert Martin” is moving and even amusing to a point. Travis Leland gives a strong performance as Frank Churchill. He has a handsome voice “Home” and “This Is How Love Feels” Brian Herndon also reprises his role in the original musical splendidly playing Mr. Elton as a groveling individual. Nick Nakashima also reprising the role is pleasingly naïve as Robert Martin. Sharon Rietkerk marvelously plays Jane Fairfax, an attractive visitor to the town. She has perfect thematic resonance when singing the reprise “Home”. Richert Easley a New York actor with his wonderful Shakespearean voice is very amusing as Mr. Woodhouse. Lee Ann Payne, Lauren Cohn, Michelle Drexler, Richard Frederick, Alyssa Bryanne Esquilin, Rebecca Euchler, Brigitte Losey and Neiry Rojo don’t disappoint as each member plays well-suited to his or her part.
Director Robert Kelley has just the right light touch; never forgetting this is a butterfly of a play, not a grounded caterpillar. He infuses it with humor and heart. Production values are amazing with Joe Ragey’s set with a large LED screen showing various scenes of 19th Century houses and gardens. Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting is first class and Fumiko Bielefeld’s period costumes are gorgeous. The orchestra consisting of Carol Kutsch on violin, Peter Lemberg on oboe/English horm and Kris Yenney on cello under the direction of William Liberatore on piano supply fine support for the singers.
“Jane Austin’s Emma” runs through January 2, 2016 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets call 650-463-1960 or on line at www.theatreworks.org Coming up next is Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin opening on January 13 and running through February 14, 2016 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.