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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Jane Austen's Emma
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Radio Play


Lianne Marie Dobbs and Timothy Gulan
Photo by Kevin Berne
With a bit too much pride in the prejudices she firmly holds about who should be married to whom, Emma allows her sense and sensibilities to cloud her good-hearted judgments about others' lives and to squelch her own true feelings of love. And in Paul Gordon's Emma, as revived by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, she does so in a gloriously stunning stage setting, through soaring and memorable music, and with many more comedic twists and turns than most Austen readers will associate with the much-loved author. Emma is TheatreWorks' all-time-most-attended show (it world premiered here in 2007 after first being introduced in their annual New Works Festival in 2006), and Artistic Director (and returning director from the '07 premiere) Robert Kelley has welcomed in residence over the past month Paul Gordon to rework his famously popular musical. With some updating of the book, a once-dropped song added back, and a new title to note the sprucing up of an already-proven hit, TheatreWorks brings Jane Austen's Emma to the intimate Lucie Stern stage in a production that has to rate as one of very the best among the company's many stellar musical outings and premieres in its 45+-year history.

Lianne Marie Dobbs returns eight years later to once again take on the title role and she immediately establishes a relaxed rapport with the audience, speaking to us from stage edge as if we were all her closest confidents. Her Emma Woodhouse is most assuredly confident in knowing who is best for each of her single friends (often with no interest in what they really feel). She even shares with us her dreamed-up wedding scenes in both acts' opening ensemble number "Pride and Sense" (the second, including her own). With a lyrical voice that glides easily over notes full of clarity, Ms. Dobbs can also suddenly cut into a speaking side voice to the audience before switching back into full song. Blunt to what some might think a fault ("Her manner can be improved but her hair is perfect," she says of potential rival Miss Harriet Smith), Emma still wins the hearts and respect of the Highbury English elite of 1815. ("We are most impressed with Miss Woodhouse," they dutifully sing.) We as audience also come to love her (and Ms. Dobbs) immensely, even with her naïve but stubborn belief that she can see into and control the hearts of all those around her. We are skeptical with smiles and willing to accept her own explanation: "Someone else's happiness is all the reward I need."

But one person is not quite so bowled over (at least not at first): the highly likeable, handsome, and (of course) still-single Mr. Knightly—another of this production's reprised performances from 2007 by Timothy Gulan. In "Badly Done," Mr. Knightly chastises in song his friend, sparring partner, and soon-to-be romantic focus, Emma: "You are clever but not very smart ... You are rather bad with good intentions." Mr. Gulan brings to Mr. Knightly an impish, tongue-in-cheek quality that allows him to constantly criticize Emma in ways that perk up her and our adoration of him. "I have faith in your ability to meddle where you do not belong," he warns her with a frown while his eyes betray feelings even he does not yet know he has. When those tugs in his heart finally come to the surface in the moving "Emma," one of the night's most memorable songs soars to melodic heights with emotional depth.

Beyond the two key leads, if there is anyone who comes close time and again to stealing the show, it definitely is Leigh Ann Larkin as Miss Harriet Smith. Emma has decided to befriend this orphaned young woman of unknown societal background with the sole purpose of marrying her up the social ladder. Miss Smith endures various attempts at coupling, finally responding in a powerful yet funny "Humiliation" when one such match turns her down on the ballroom floor. The comically shy and humble Harriet—who tends much too often to bow to those she sees as her superiors while stumbling through silly but well-meaning apologies—has ideas of her own that she has trouble telling in a convincing way to the esteemed Miss Woodhouse. She brings up "Mr. Robert Martin" in repeated notes that become an audience earworm as she pines for a simple, humble farmer with a huge heart. Reprising his 2007 role, Nick Nakashima presents a lovable if not somewhat oafish village character who joins with Harriet in a delightful reprise of "Mr. Robert Martin" as the two eventually out-maneuver Emma to become a couple.

This village of 19th century personalities includes the good-natured, bubbly-voiced Miss Bates (Lauren Cohn), her wheelchair-bound and deaf mother Mrs. Bates (Michelle Drexler), and the puffy-cheeked Mr. Woodhouse (Richard Easley), with nose-hanging spectacles and a sincere aversion to change of any kind (most especially, new marriages). Brian Herndon's Mr. Elton (the local vicar with a devoted penchant for the high society parties and privileges) is hilariously stuck on Emma while at the same time she is determined to shape him a future with the reluctant Harriet Smith. Sharon Rietkerk brings a lovely voice and disposition to the newly arrived Miss Jane Fairfax who politely overlooks the jealousy of Emma as she awaits the appropriate time to reveal her secrete and mutually felt love with the debonair Mr. Frank Churchill, played by Travis Leland. His high tenor notes sung with ease and tenderness blend wonderfully in duets with both Emma, who has eyes for him in "This is How Love Feels," and with Jane, who has already won his heart in a reprise of "Home". Mr. Churchill's parents are the doting Mr. and Mrs. Weston (Richard Frederick and Lee Ann Payne) who do not share the same name as their son (much to Mr. Woodhouse's chagrin) but do share in his generosity of spirit which epitomizes the sense of extended family these residents of Highbury all seem to share.

The genius of composer, lyricist, and writer Paul Gordon comes through in many respects but especially in his generous use of reprises. No fewer than nine times does he bring back an earlier song in order to highlight Emma's wild illusions of reality ("Pride and Sense"), turn upside down Emma's schemes ("Home"), contrast an earlier scolding to a later self-reappraisal ("Badly Done"), or ensure a climactic resolution of love-finally-found ("Emma"). Much of the music's power to tell a 19th century story we can so easily embrace comes from his decision to give us words and score that have a 21st century feel to them—and from the choices of direction by conductor/pianist William Liberatore who turns his band of four into a symphony of full sound and modern beat.

The look of this production could hardly be more magical. Joe Ragey has created a host of memorable scenes, from chandelier-studded ballroom to picnic-pleasing meadow, storefronts on the village square, and elegant drawing room embraced by massive, carved frames in which the story's characters periodically appear humorously to underline current dialogue or lyrics. As is the case time and again at TheatreWorks and all throughout the Bay Area theatre world, Fumiko Bielefeldt has outdone herself in designing a host of eye-popping, period costumes, each more stunning than the last. The appropriate lighting and sound are masterfully accomplished by Steven B. Mannshardt and Jeff Mockus, respectively, to ensure that no detail is missed in making Emma a visual and auditory spectacle.

But the evening's crowning credit must go to Robert Kelley, who has taken everything he gleaned in directing the winning 2007 production and reinvented it in order to create a production that is as fresh and exciting as another world premiere. Having Emma wave her arms as if they were magical wands in order to move others in directions she deems correct for them; leaning characters in to hear a side conversation in a funny and perfectly timed "when EF Hutton listens" manner; and exquisitely coordinating the movement and glances of full ensemble numbers to enhance to the max the possible fun—in all these touches and dozens more, Robert Kelley orchestrates a fabulous cast and a re-mastered script into one of the theatrical highlights of the year.

Jane Austen's Emma by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley continues through January 2, 2015, at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available at http://www.theatreworks.org.


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