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THEATER REVIEW Emma
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2020-02-18

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Playwright: Paul Gordon ( book, music & lyrics )

At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier. Tickets: 312-595-5600; ChicagoShakes.com; $35-$90. Runs through: March 15

This new musical adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma has received mostly glowing reviews, but my reaction is somewhat contrary. It's not that I disliked it: it's handsome and melodious, with an outstanding cast and orchestra; I had a pleasant time. So why didn't Emma sweep me away?

Jane Austen's novels—set in elegant Regency England of the early 1800s—are masterpieces of delayed gratification. Her upper-class hero and heroine never so much as embrace—let alone dally—until they declare undying love late in the story. However, to dramatize Emma as a movie, play or musical, you can't delay gratification too long or you'll pleasantly lose your audience, and this version does just that.

To be sure, Paul Gordon's book, music and lyrics are true to the main threads of Austen's novel. Gordon effortlessly conveys—no mean feat—Austen's combination of romance, intellect and comedy of manners, and his contemporary music gracefully summons an earlier, more stately era. Still I waited and waited and waited for someone to fire an emotional gun in this show. Finally, when the hero, Mr. Knightley, expressed his passion for Emma in a soaring song, the audience leapt to embrace it, making it the show's most rousingly-applauded number. But it didn't happen until the middle of Act II, which is much too long to wait. Intermission came and went without anything really being at stake for Emma or Mr. Knightley. Gordon must find a way to inject something deeply emotional for the hero and heroine much earlier.

Emma isn't a dance show, either, and Act I could use some goosing up with fancier musical staging, or a rousing all-cast number similar to "Relations," the effective early number that really sets Emma in motion. Also, Gordon has turned Harriet Smith's love interest, Robert Martin ( Ian Geers ), into an inarticulate country bumpkin rather than the well-spoken yeoman farmer of the novel. It makes him a minor comic character for whom Smith ( Ephie Aardema ) seems to settle, thereby diminishing both of them.

Beyond these points, Emma is beautifully played and sung. Lead players Lora Lee Gayer ( Emma ), Brad Standley ( Mr. Knightley ), Erica Stephen ( Jane Fairfax ) and Devin DeSantis ( Frank Churchill ) have wonderful mezzo, alto and tenor voices and deserve a good quartet, which they do not have. The strong strings and woodwinds of the five-player orchestra provide a rich sound for Gordon's lilting and lovely score, although it would be better to cut the two brief opening songs and launch the show with "Relations."

Roberta Duchak is musical director, Korey Danielson the conductor, Jane Lanier the choreographer and Barbara Gaines the director. All have done strong work, but the vehicle itself needs fine tuning after this initial full production.


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