Also see David's review of Xanadu
Emma made an entrance on the stage of the Cleveland Play House on February 26 and seems to be taking Cleveland by storm.
Jane Austen (1775-1817) published "Emma" in 1815. This book has long been thought of as an excellent example of the early nineteenth-century romantic novel. Austen wrote that "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." However, on the stage Emma has charm, laced with several annoying habits.
Now, with Michael Bloom's adaptation of Austen's novel to the stage, audiences can share the experience of Emma's struggle to be the matchmaker long before Dolly Levi was born.
Bloom, the artistic director of The Cleveland Play House, had the advantage of being on site while his adaptation began to take life in the theater's rehearsal halls and on the stage.
At the performance I attended, one wag in the audience commented we were watching really wide-screen public broadcasting. He's wrong. What we're watching is a delightful retelling of a comedy that should have been brought to life on the stage a long time ago (a new musical version by Paul Gordon has seen a few regional productions).
Keep in mind that women in the eighteenth century had to inherit money or marry well. The economy provided few jobs for a womana governess, a servant or a cook seemed to be all that was available. Jane Austen lived with her parents and her sisters. She earned money as a novelist, but that was a new and adventurous job for a woman.
Fortunately, Emma (Sarah Nealis) was financially secure. In addition, she was pretty enough to win a wealthy husband. But she wanted to remain single. When Mr. George Knightly (Mark Montgomery) walks on the stage, most members of the audience suspect we'll have a wedding before we have a curtain call.
The cast is excellent. Peter Amster (director) has helped the cast develop distinct, interesting characters. Even the supporting characters have full-blown personalities.
Bloom has tightened the story a bit, dropped a few characters and a few plot points. However, the story as told on the stage does not suffer.
I assume this is a work in progress. Bloom needs to tighten the script and cut about 15 minutes from the story. The night I saw the show, the production ran two and a half hours, including the 15-minute intermission.
Kristine Kearney (costume designer) has created historically accurate costumes (as best I can remember from my costume classes). In addition, the dresses for the women move easily on the stage and one pregnant character grows larger as she approaches the birth of the baby and, then, is svelte again. Men in nineteenth-century England always seem over dressed to me. Then I visited England and wished for vests and heavy coats.
Robert Mark Morgan (scenic designer) provides a set with large panels that fly in from the loft and set pieces that can be raised on the elevator to provide a quick set change. Morgan's set is important to the fluid movement of the actors and the work of the director. The action flows with long pauses for a set change.
Emma is a solid, entertaining production as it is. I suspect Bloom's script will have a life after this production. We should watch for the successes Bloom and Emma have together.
Emma continues in the Drury Theatre, The Cleveland Play House, through March 21, 2010. For ticket information, telephone 216-795-7000, ext. 4. The next show in The Cleveland Play House is Bill W. and Dr. Bob (April 9 – May 2).
The Drury Theatre
- David Ritchey