BWW Review: Enchanting EMMA Returns to TheatreWorks

Clever, sharp and witty, "Emma" the musical is as charismatic as it title character. Creator Paul Gordon took the Jane Austen classic and gave audiences a crisp, well-paced and engaging script with a score that wonderfully serves its characters' acerbic humor and innermost thoughts. Gordon's soliloquy style and multiple short themes highlight each role, which, when well-cast, sell the show with radiant storytelling. In the case of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, a four-member orchestra also adds charm.

Gordon takes on all authorship duties, a testament to his unique place in theatre and as a modern composer. His "Jane Eyre" received Tony Award nominations for Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical and Best Musical. And Gordon's Off-Broadway "Daddy Long-Legs" will air live over the Internet later this week. Back in the Bay Area, however, audiences can catch a lovely version of "Emma" at the company that premiered the musical in 2007. Lianne Marie Dobbs and Timothy Gulan also return in the roles they originated, the matchmaking Emma and her full-of-integrity brother-in-law Mr. Knightley.

This time visiting the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, TheatreWorks' scenic designer Joe Ragey crafts an elegant Highbury village with great golden frames, background images that could have been painted by Jane Austen herself, and a beautiful chandelier that hangs over the audience. Emma's two beautiful dresses, accented by various pullover pieces, also work nicely with the romantic atmosphere. Director Robert Kelley adds a humorous touch to his staging as Emma manipulates acquaintances in her daydreams, and her conscience plays out what friends might say to her.

The show belongs to Emma, an impulsive and proud Marie Dobbs tempered by Gulan's reserved and knowing Mr. Knightley. Both exhibit commanding vocals in striking melodies such as the tender, passionate title song and Emma's "Epiphany." Gordon also provides catchy, playful character and ensemble songs such as "Relations" and "The Recital." Emma's protégée Harriet, a slouched and pucker-cheeked Leigh Ann Larkin, admires a "Mr. Robert Martin" (the beaming Nick Nakashima) and later endures "Humiliation" at a dance. Bay Area audiences may remember Larkin from her rousing turn as Petra in American Conservatory Theatre's recent "A Little Night Music." At TheatreWorks she displays an incredible versatility in a persona so completely opposite of the hearty Petra.

Richert Easley, Lauren Cohn, Sharon Rietkerk and Travis Leland also give exceptional performances as the Emma's fearful father, the town gossip, an accomplished rival and handsome friend. Their imagined society feels entirely like "Home" to audiences - a mesmerizing, fun, and thoroughly enjoyable home that Jane Austen fans are certain to love.


Jane Austen's EMMA
at TheatreWorks' Lucie Stern Theatre
Through January 2
Photo by Kevin Berne

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From This Author Harmony Wheeler