Jane Austen’s Emma — The Musical: Simply Delightful

Emma Makes Welcome Return to TheatreWorks

With no chance to post this month, I reproduce in full Robert Hewitt’s review from sfgate of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s Jane Austen’s Emma which I strongly recommend as well (playing through January 2, 2016 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto):

“Love overcomes pride, prejudice and the protagonist’s misplaced sensibilities to comic and moving effect in Paul Gordon’s buoyantly tuneful “Jane Austen’s Emma” at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. It isn’t really a holiday show, despite a few added yuletide trimmings. But the company’s revival of “Emma” that opened Saturday, Dec. 5, is a terrific gift for anyone looking for smart, joyous new musical theater or just in need of a good Austen fix.

all photos by Kevin Berne

all photos by Kevin Berne

Yes, Austen sings — or her characters do. Composer, playwright and lyricist Gordon has had to cut and simplify a good deal of Austen’s classic novel. But he’s done so in a manner that’s not only true to the central story but highlights the comic edge in Austen’s satire and makes the characters’ emotions feel both immediate and true to Regency period England. Whenever Lianne Marie Dobbs’ captivating meddlesome Emma gets carried away by her schemes of romance, she and Gordon make her fantasies seem as real to us as they must feel to her.

Dobbs is reprising her role from TheatreWorks’ 2007 world premiere, as is the thoughtful, broad-voiced Timothy Gulan as her close friend and eventual suitor, the tenderly judgmental Mr. Knightley. Three other actors in pivotal supporting roles are back as well. “Emma,” which was developed in TheatreWorks’ New Works program, became one of the company’s biggest box-office hits and has since been produced in Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Diego and Arizona. But this production isn’t just a revival. For the novel’s 200th anniversary (this month), Gordon has revised the show, adding new material. And it works like a charm.

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The score, beautifully sung, and meticulously played by musical director William Liberatore’s four-piece chamber orchestra, combines period-sounding melodies, from ballads and parlor songs to dance music, with modern, pop sensibilities in a flowing, almost seamless blend. Director Robert Kelley follows suit, orchestrating the action with musical precision and arranging painterly tableaux amid the giant, rococo gilt frames — often filled with early 19th century rural English scenes — of Joe Ragey’s set.

TW_Emma10_KevinBerne_thumbDobbs throws herself into her role with an energetic, assured joy to match the personality of one of Austen’s great originals. Emma, financially secure enough not to need to marry, sublimates her romantic urges in self-deluded fantasies of brilliant matchmaking. She manages to misjudge everybody’s intentions, including her own — as brilliantly expressed in the emotionally confounded solo, “So This Is How Love Feels.”

Leigh Ann Larkin’s wonderfully bubbly-downtrodden Harriet is her principal victim as the orphan Emma misguides in affairs of the heart. Her solo “Humiliation” is a painfully comic highlight. Her thwarted romance with Nick Nakashima’s sweetly simple Robert is a delightfully delineated subplot. Sharon Rietkerk’s golden-toned, unassumingly gracious Jane Fairfax is outstanding as a misjudged potential rival. Travis Leland is a suitably dashing Frank Churchill, Emma’s imaginary crush,Richert Easley is hilariously querulous as her father and Brian Herndon (like Nakashima, from the ’07 cast) is perfectly obnoxious as the pompous minister.

One of the cleverer aspects of Gordon’s score is his use of reprises to comment on plot twists, underline an emotional revelation and advance Emma and Knightley’s evolving recognition that they’re as meant for each other as Shakespeare’s similarly warring Beatrice and Benedick. When Gulan proposes, the musical echo of an earlier soliloquy brings “Emma” to a resolution as slyly comic as it is truly heartwarming.

Robert Hurwitt is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. E-mail: rhurwitt@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @RobertHurwitt

WILD APPLAUSE Jane Austen’s Emma: Musical. Music, lyrics and book by Paul Gordon. Directed by Robert Kelley. Through Jan. 2. $19-$80. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Two hours, 15 minutes. (650) 463-1960. www.theatreworks.org.”

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