Jane Austen's Emma
The Repertory Theater of St. Louis has opened a production of Paul Gordon's musical version of Jane Austen's Emma, which is as charming, as essentially good-hearted, and as beautiful as its heroineand occasionally, just occasionally, as frustrating.
To begin with, the show is perfectly cast. Many of the leads in this production have been working together since before the show's widely praised opening in August of 2007 at San Francisco's Theater Works company. A sojourn at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park during September of this year allowed time to refine and adjust, and the result is as polished and proficient an ensemble as one is likely to encounter anywhere. Lianne Marie Dobbs, as Emma, not only looks the part but perfectly captures the exquisite combination of vanity and generosity, of good will and ethical cluelessness, that makes Emma Woodhouse one of literature's most endearing heroines. The redoubtable Mr. Knightley is brought to solid life by Timothy Gulan, as dark and as handsome as a leading man should be. Both have attractive, limber singing voices, and match up well with Mr. Gordon's score.
Among those who have been with the cast since the beginning, Dani Marcus is a nice physical and vocal match for the hapless Harriet Smith, Brian Herndon is appropriately odious as the oily parson Mr. Elton, and Suzanne Grodner strikes the perfect note as the talkative Miss Bates. In one of the evening's funniest moments, gorgeous Julie Hanson (who joined the cast for the Cincinnati production) puts her big voice to perfect use as her character, Jane Fairfax, decisively bests Emma in a nineteenth-century version of a battle of the bands.
Secondly, the production values are very high, indeed. John Ezell's open set, inspired in its floral motif by the English cottage gardens of Miss Austen's day, allows quick transitions among the numerous scenes, with various interiors represented by a fireplace and mantel, or by a couple of pieces of furniturein one spectacularly successful instance, by a dining table that isn't there. A sort of gazebo upstage provides a platform for the four musicians, a passage for entrances and exits, and a convenient place for characters to stand aside from the main action. Mostly, though, the action swirls all over the thrust stage, especially during scene changes when all of the nineteen members of the cast may be on the set at the same time. The lighting, by Dennis Parichy, is of course an essential element of the design, and it is beautifully managed.
Fumiko Bielefeldt designed the costumes for the original production, and they are not only convincingly of the period but subtly and gracefully efficient as well. As she points out in her program notes, Miss Bielefeldt was faced with the almost impossible task of taking her young women through a whirlwind of scenes occurring over a period of a year. To manage completely different clothes for each scene would have been both impossibly expensive and unworkable, so she lets her ladies achieve a variety of looks by adding accessories, such as shawls and hats, to a few basic dresses. The mens clothes are even more subtle but just as ingenious.
In the third place, the direction by Robert Kelley, the founder of Theater Works and the only director the show has had, is both sure handed and powerful. Emma, in its book as well as its score, is a clever fusion of wit and sentiment, a combination which of course reflects its rich source, and both must be clearly visible if it is to achieve its maximum effect. There are passages of vigorous movement, and passages of calm; moments of tension, ironic or not, and moments of warmth and tenderness, and Mr. Kelley tunes movement, dialog, and singing to achieve the maximum effect in each.
The show is not, unfortunately, without its frustrating moments. Disciples of the Olympian Miss Austen, who traditionally don't like people mucking about with her stories, may find themselves surprised that Mr. Gordon has turned sturdy yeoman farmer Robert Martin into an awkward comic yokel (though he does get the evening's best laugh line) or that Emma's dear Papa is made to be a good deal more doddering than the original; they may also be discomfited by the transmogrification of Harriet Smith into something very much like a female second banana from a Broadway show of the 1930s. It goes without saying that the plot of the novel is attenuated, and that many events are narrated rather than presented, but that is true of any adaptation; and it is important to note that the core relationships between Emma and Mr. Knightley and between Emma and Harriet are in general faithfully rendered. Still, it is necessary to say that the original story is handled with a good deal of liberty.
Mr. Gordon's music and lyrics are interesting; he shows a Sondheim-like taste for making poetry out of odd juxtapositions of words, most interestingly in a song called "The Conviction of My Indifference," but frequently enough throughout the evening. When this works, it can be very effective, but there are times when the odd words seem almost to upstage the message. His music is unified and often pleasantly surprising, but flavored with Lloyd Webber and Schðnberg (of Les Misérables) and committed to the ubiquitous contemporary notion that intensity of emotion is best expressed by either high volume or falsetto delivery.
Fortunately, the quality of this production rises above the occasional flaws in its material to create a thoroughly charming effect. It is a pleasure to watch Miss Dobbs, Mr. Gulan and their colleagues at work. The set and costumes are beautifully thought-out and as beautifully executed. The direction is expert and insightful. All in all, the Rep's Emma is a delightful evening of musical theater.
Emma will run through November 2 on the mainstage at the Rep; for tickets, call 314 968 4925 or visit www.repstl.org.