Opened Aug. 25 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
TheatreWorks’ Emma charms, delights in world premiere musical adaptation
three [1/2] stars A match well made
Oh the pain of being an eligible bachelor in a Jane Austen novel. All the single women claw at you like cats at a scratching post, and everyone in the county is up in your business like Lindsay Lohan on a bender.
Such is the case with single men Mr. Knightley, Mr. Elton, Mr. Churchill and Mr. Martin in Austen’s Emma. Their very bachelorhood drives the plot and throws everyone in the book into an upright British tizzy.
There are so many flustered emotions and heaving bodices in Austen’s novel, it’s no wonder Paul Gordon took the next logical step and made all these desperately romantic people sing.
Writing the music, lyrics, book and orchestrations, Gordon is the mastermind behind Emma, the world-premiere musical that opened Saturday at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The opening marked a milestone for its producer, TheatreWorks, by being the company’s 50th world premiere.
As far as world premieres go, Emma is in remarkably good shape. Gordon’s score — an easy-on-the-ears kind of chamber pop orchestrated for violin, cello, oboe/English horn and piano — hits all the right notes and captures both the silliness and earnest romance in Austen’s 1815 novel.
Robert Kelley’s direction is fluid and unfussy, with Joe Ragey’s simple, swiftly moving set — which places the small orchestra on top of a pavilion center stage — adding immeasurably to the cinematic speed of scene changes.
But setting really is the least important thing about Emma. All we need to know is that we’re in the town of Highbury, south of London, where everybody’s business is everybody’s business, and the bulk of that business is who’s going to marry whom.
Chief busybody in this story is Emma Woodhouse (Lianne Marie Dobbs), a perky young woman of means with a penchant for matchmaking. She’s not really any good at it, but that doesn’t stop her. By musical’s end, she will have realized her “insufferable vanity” and “unpardonable arrogance,” and that helps us like her from the beginning, even as she sings things like, “I’m awed by my talent” or “Why pick your own mate when I can impose?”
Emma attempts to match her friend Harriet (Dani Marcus) with the town’s new vicar, Mr. Elton (Brian Herndon). What Emma doesn’t realize, in all her ministrations, is that Elton is infatuated with her, not Harriet, which leaves poor Harriet hanging out to dry, especially Emma has encouraged her not to marry the nice farm boy Mr. Martin (Nick Nakashima), who is apparently too low for consideration.
Emma attempts a match for herself with Mr. Frank Churchill (Travis Poelle) if only because, on paper, he’s perfect for her. In the flesh, he also happens to be handsome and charming, but there are no sparks.
The only sparking onstage comes from Emma’s interaction with Mr. Knightley (Timothy Gulan), a sort of family member — his brother is married to Emma’s sister. The two spar like brother and sister, but come Act 2, they both begin to realize that under their quarreling lies something much more intense.
Gordon’s last musical was Jane Eyre, which had a go on Broadway before it hit the regional theaters. TheatreWorks was the first to produce it outside New York, and the 2003 production was admirable. But to be frank, it made little sense to have such dark, gloomy 19th century folks singing.
It’s much more reasonable to accept Austen’s characters singing nonstop about love and fate and heartache. And Gordon’s score — much less bland and far more shaped than many a new musical — provides comedy (“Humiliation,” “Mr. Robert Martin,” “Relations”), heart (“Emma,” “Home”) and even a diva moment or two (“Should We Ever Meet,” “The Recital’). There are moments when the show threatens to become twee — too much singing about strawberries, for instance — but the humor undercuts the preciousness.
The cast is highly enjoyable, with Dobbs, a homegrown Bay Area performer who has truly come into her own as a musical theater star, elevating the entire show with her eminently likable Emma.
The combination of Austen’s sturdy storytelling and Gordon’s masterful music is a match even Emma would approve of, and that’s saying quite a lot.
For information about Emma, visit www.theatreworks.org.