2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Review: `Emma’

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.

Making `Emma’ sing

Here’s how Jane Austen describes the title character of her novel Emma:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Austen goes on to mention, in a nice way, that Emma is spoiled and that she had “rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”

Emma, in her sweet arrogance, goes on to meddle — always with good intentions — in the lives of those around her, matchmaking and fussing until she finds love right under her own nose.
If Austen were around today, she would have seen Emma portrayed on film by Gwyneth Paltrow in a fairly straightforward adaptation called Emma and by Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, a perky teen comedy that is actually a clever adaptation of Austen’s novel.

This weekend, Austen might be delighted (or alarmed) to see her “handsome, clever and rich” Emma singing onstage in TheatreWorks’ Emma, a world-premiere musical by Paul Gordon.

In 2000, Gordon was represented on Broadway by another literary musical heroine, Jane Eyre. That’s the show that connected him with TheatreWorks, the first regional theater company to produce Jane Eyre after its Broadway run.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I came to see Jane Eyre in Mountain View,” Gordon says. “But I fell in love with the production and with (artistic director) Robert Kelley’s direction.”

The new relationship continued when Gordon’s Emma, for which he is doing triple duty writing music, lyrics and book, was selected to be part of TheatreWorks’ 2006 New Works Initiative.

Talk about fast track _ a year later the show is already on the main stage.

“Some projects just go faster than others,” Gordon says before heading into a rehearsal. “For whatever reason, I wrote Emma in six months, and before I was even done, TheatreWorks was doing the first reading. Now, not even a year after that, we’re up to the first production.”

Gordon, whose background includes penning pop hits for Peter Cetera and Amy Grant (“Next Time I Fall”) as well as for Bette Midler, Quincy Jones and others, didn’t intend to write the entire show by himself.

He wrote the score, which he describes as a “chamber musical scored by oboe, cello, violin and piano that blends theater music with the Beatles — think `Eleanor Rigby,’[TH]” and sketched out a first-draft script.

“I figured someone would come in later and write the actual book,” Gordon explains. “But the first reading went just fine. Remarkably, the thing worked.”

The reason? Gordon’s collaborator — his book writer, if you will — was Jane Austen.

“It’s not like I’ve written a new story,” Gordon says. “Obviously I’m writing some different scenes and transitions, things you naturally do in an adaptation, but this is her story. I’m using as many of her words as I can. I’m humble enough to know that whatever anyone thinks of the book, good or bad, it’s Jane Austen.”

Kelley is back in the director’s seat for Emma, opens Saturday at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, and there’s another holdover from Jane Eyre as well.

Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs, a veteran of TheatreWorks and 42nd Street Moon shows, played Helen Burns in “Jane Eyre” and now plays the title role in Emma.

Dobbs has been something of a muse to Gordon on this project.

“It turned out that Lianne was instrumental in making TheatreWorks aware that I was writing Emma,” Gordon says. “She made sure I got the script to (TheatreWorks’ director of New Works) Kent Nicholson, and then she flew out to L.A. to record the demos with me.”

Gordon says he wrote the character of Emma with Dobbs in mind.

“She has the right presence, spirit and intelligence for a role such as Emma,” Gordon says. “It’s hard to find actresses who sing well and act well. Lianne personifies the idea of Emma, and she’s such a great musician with a wonderfully trained ear. She cares deeply about the character, and that really helps me.”

Emma hits the stage only a few weeks after another Austen-themed project, Becoming Jane starring Anne Hathaway as the British writer, hit movie screens. hardly a year goes by, it seems, without popular culture rummaging through Austen’s collected works.

“The timing is good for us, but it’s certainly not planned,” Gordon says. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this resurgence of love for Austen’s brilliant work will help the journey of this show. Our goal is to try and live up to Jane Austen’s vision. She set the bar pretty high. I respect that and want to do right by her.”

Another project close to Gordon’s heart is the Web site indiEclectic.com, an attempt to shine the spotlight on singers and songwriters who, in Gordon’s opinion, aren’t receiving the kind of exposure they should in th emusic business and the mainstream media.

“I went to a bunch of singers and songwriters I know — one of the first was Alanis Morissette — and asked them to recommend 10 artists they love and that no one has ever heard of,” Gordon says. I went to Robbie Robertson and Jackson Browne and a bunch of people, and they were more than happy to share the music they really love, and those people in turn make recommendations and so on, and so on.”

The hope behind the site, Gordon says, is to try and find a way for the artists to support themselves — “we’re not expecting millionaires here” — to to allow the musicians to devote themselves to their music and find a way in this digital age to support other artists and create community.

In the near future, Gordon hopes the site will offer what he calls a “backstage pass,” which for about $20 or so, subscribers can download all the content on the site, which would be songs by 200 to 300 artists.

“The artists are really enthusiastic,” Gordon says. “They love the idea.”

Visitors to indieEclectic.com can search on Gordon’s name to come up with what he considers a decent introduction to his work. He recommends visitors take a listen to “Theme from Emma” (from his current project), “Secret of Happiness” (from another project with Jane Eyre collaborator John Caird based on Daddy Long Legs) and “Unholy Train” (a solo work that’s more of his pop music/singer-songwriter side).

Emma continues through Sept. 16 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, corner of Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $25 to $61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.