Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The musical is based on the famous novel of the same name by Jane Austen, which was originally published in 1815. Emma follows the story of Emma Woodhouse, a lady of the English Regency who fancies herself to be a matchmaker for the residents of the village of Highbury. Though she is sometimes successful, Emma's meddlesome efforts often cause troublesome romantic entanglements for those around her (namely her friend Harriet). She soon finds herself likewise mixed up in love's complex web, thanks to several would-be suitors for her affection.
Emma has music and lyrics by Paul Gordon. Mr. Gordon was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Score for his work on the 2000 musical Jane Eyre. For that darker piece, Mr. Gordon supplied many sweeping melodies that showcased his gift for crafting emotionally moving songs. Fans of Gordon's Jane Eyre shouldn't expect those heart-ripping power ballads here. Emma requires a lighter touch, and Gordon adapts well by providing suitable tunes in a more delicate tone. His lyrics are extremely well written and intelligent, with many delightfully non-typical (yet apt) rhyming couplets. The title song is exquisite in form and quite memorable. Other score highlights include "The Argument," "You Should Have Known Better," "The Conviction of My Indifference" and the hilarious "Humiliation."
Mr. Gordon also supplies the book for Emma. The storytelling relies a bit too much on exposition and narration, and is quite episodic in structure. However, these may be necessary by-products of condensing the novel into a two-hour and forty-five-minute musical. Though the story itself is predictable and based more on character than action (not a lot actually happens), the plot's many humorous twists and turns are skillfully communicated in this adaption.
The eighteen member cast is well-prepared and each provides a fine all around performance. Lianne Marie Dobbs exhibits confident vocals and a deft comedic touch as Emma. She comes across as mischievously appealing, vain and engaging at the same time. Ms. Dobbs captures the required carefree and careless attitude in a manner that is ultimately endearing despite the character's many flaws.
Timothy Gulan is a properly strong-willed counterpart to Emma as Mr. Knightley, and capably sings many of the score's best songs. Expertly providing much of the show's well-crafted humor are Dani Marcus (Harriet Smith), Erin Maguire (Mrs. Elton), Richert Easley (Mr. Woodhouse) and Suzanne Grodner (Miss Bates). Also in strong support are Christianne Tisdale (Mrs. Weston), Kurt Zischke (Mr. Weston), Travis Poelle (Frank Churchill), Brian Herndon (Mr. Elton), Julie Hanson (Jane Fairfax) and Alex Organ (Robert Marin).
Director Robert Kelley, who also directed the world premiere production, clearly understands the material and creates an atmosphere and tone appropriate for its many charms. The show's comedic moments are wonderfully rendered and there are smooth transitions between scenes. The show does drag a bit halfway through each act, with either the need for some trimming of the material or a picking up of the pace. Mary Beth Cavanaugh's limited choreography is fitting, and Laura Bergquist capably leads four instrumentalists playing orchestrations by the composer.
The handsome scenic design by John Ezell features a unit set decorated with many floral patterns, which Dennis Parichy also continues in his atmospheric lighting. The costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt are attractive and period appropriate.
Emma is a light, agreeable and funny story, and Paul Gordon's musical adaption provides material well-suited to the original source. This production boasts strong performers and is certain to satisfy and entertain most audience members, especially fans of the original novel.
Emma continues at Cincinnati Playhouse In The Park until October 3, 2008. For tickets and more information, call (513) 421-3888.
-- Scott Cain