Theater & Dance
Review
"Jane Austen's 'Emma'"

By: Book by Paul Gordon, based on the Jane Austen novel; music and lyrics also by Gordon
Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Directed by: Robert Kelley
Featuring: Lianne Marie Dobbs, Lee Ann Payne, Richert Easley, Timothy Gulan, Lauren Cohn, Sharon Rietkerk, Michelle Drexler, Richard Frederick, Travis Leland, Brian Herndon, Leigh Ann Larkin, Nick Nakashime, Alyssa Bryanne Esquillin, Rebecca Euchler, Brigitte Losey and Neiry Rojo
Music direction by: William Liberatore
Running time: 120 minutes, one intermission
When: December 2, 2015, through January 2, 2016
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Tickets: $19-$80 (savings available). Visit http://theatreworks.org or call 1-650-463-1960


Read John Orr's review in Regarding Arts.

Read John Orr's interview with Paul Gordon and Robert Kelley in The Daily News.

Larkin, Dobbs
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Leigh Ann Larkin as Harriet Smith, left, confides in Lianne Marie Dobbs as Emma Woodhouse in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of "Jane Austen's 'Emma,'" playing through January 2, 2016, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Visit http://theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.
'Emma': a gift of warmth, charm
and memorable music
TheatreWorks' most popular show of all time
is back in a polished and delightful reprise
December 10, 2015

Indomitable. Incorrigible. Indefatigable. Irresistible, and yes, sometimes perniciously irritating as well.

That’s a darned close-to-perfect description of Emma, the mischievous matchmaking heroine of Paul Gordon’s "Jane Austen’s 'Emma'" that is making a return holiday run at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, after breaking box office records when it was commissioned and performed in 2007.

The appealing, melodious (and occasionally repetitious) musical runs through January 2, 2016, at the Lucie Stern Theatre.

"Emma," of course, has a built-in audience both from its initial run and from the fact that the English author is widely read and beloved the world over. Little wonder, then, that Saturday’s opening night performance earned many moments of collective applause, bursts of hearty laughter and a near-unanimous standing ovation at curtain call.

Reprising her role from 2007, the eternally perky Lianne Marie Dobbs is just shy of perfection as the adroit, spoiled and playful Emma, the youngest daughter of a wealthy landowner, Mr. Woodhouse (a delightfully crotchety and snarly Richert Easley, who gets a rise out of the audience every time he gruffly announces "I don’t like change").

Though Dobbs is on stage nearly every moment and is impossible not to follow, there’s another scene stealer in this production: the delightfully rubber-faced Leigh Ann Larkin as the slight and slighted Harriet Smith. Emma believes her matchmaking skills are nonpareil, so she is confident the new vicar, Mr. Elton (a thoroughly believable Brian Herndon) and Miss Smith are perfectly matched. (The vicar actually has his sights set on Emma while Miss Smith is smitten with the simple-minded farmer Mr. Robert Martin.)

As Mr. Martin, Nick Nakashima is another agreeable surprise. Nakashima is simplemindedly disarming as he awkwardly beams at the beauteous Miss Smith, so tongue-tied he can only stammer, "Would you like a walnut?" (She gleefully accepts it as if it were the Hope diamond.)

But what Jane Austen novel is complete without a dashing hero to make the ladies’ hearts flutter? "Emma" actually has two, the stalwart, but rather vain Mr. Frank Churchill (handsomely played by Travis Leland), who seems eager to say whatever he thinks people want him to say.

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Then there’s the steady, unfaltering Mr. Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law (her brother married his sister or, as Emma explains it, "we’re related accidentally"). Mr. Knightly seems to understand Emma far better than she understands herself. Timothy Gulan, who is also reprising his role from 2007, is not only a Colin Firth lookalike, he also has that same earnestness, compassion and forthrightness that Firth projects in many of his stage and film roles.

In "Emma," Gulan tells Emma’s father early on that "Emma knows I never flatter her." And, later, he’s the only one who can rebuke her for her boorish behavior to Jane Fairfax (a demure Sharon Rietkerk). "Her situation should have stirred your compassion," he scolds Emma. By play’s end he tells her that "I have blamed you, I have lectured you. Yet in spite of all your faults, I find you faultless." Why, any young woman would swoon over those words!

Dobbs, Gulan
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Lianne Marie Dobbs as Emma Woodhouse and Timothy Gulan as Mr. Knightley in "Jane Austen’s 'Emma.'"

Gordon’s melodic score is appealing and easy on the ears, as are his lyrics, which have a slightly modern pop sound. Surprisingly, that works well despite the fact that Austen wrote "Emma" exactly 200 years ago this month. "This is How Love Feels," "Stranger Things Have Happened" and "Humiliation" are sprightly, pithy and melodic, due in no small part to the top-drawer musical direction of William Liberatore, who guided his four-piece chamber orchestra with worldly precision.

TheatreWorks’ artistic director Robert Kelley affectionately directs this production (as he did the previous one in 2007). He and Gordon worked together to make the 2015 version a little tighter and more succinct. Gordon honed some of the musical numbers as well.

Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes are a delightful wonder, though it’s obvious that TheatreWorks already shines in the area of 19th century British costumes. But for this production, Bielefeldt enables her heroine to make quick costume changes on stage, which is good because Miss Dobbs appears almost nonstop. So rather than have five dressers at the ready to change her costumes, instead Bielefeldt adds a shawl here, a short, tight-fitting jacket and hat there, and viola! Emma is ready to go.

Although suitably ornate and gaudy, the gigantic gold picture frames that scenic designer Joe Ragey uses to decorate the set are sometimes a shade too rococo. But the bucolic English scenes inside the frames add much to the set, which seamlessly changes with a few furniture embellishments from indoors, to a ball, to outside in a park and more.

As it becomes clear to even Emma and Mr. Knightly at the end that they are both besotted with each other and thrilled at the idea, Gulan sings a hauntingly enchanting reprise of the title song, "Emma." It’s an exquisite way to end a lovely evening of theater.

Clearly "Emma" is not what most people think of as Christmas fare, but it has such a warmth and charm it would be a wonderful gift for friends, family, lovers — really, anyone who appreciates good musical theater.

Email Joanne Engelhardt at JoanneEngelhardt@regardingarts.com

Dobbs, Rietkerk
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Lianne Marie Dobbs as Emma Woodhouse, center, with Sharon Rietkerk as Jane Fairfax at the fortepiano in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of"Jane Austen’s 'Emma,'" playing December 2, 2015, through January 2, 2016, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto.
Cohn, Larkin, Dobbs, Payne
Kevin Berne / TheatreWorks
Lauren Cohn as Miss Bates, Leigh Ann Larkin as Harriet Smith, Lianne Marie Dobbs as Emma Woodhouse, and Lee Ann Payne as Mrs. Weston, from left, at the Christmas Ball in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of"Jane Austen’s 'Emma,'" playing December 2, 2015, through January 2, 2016, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto.


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