“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” Jane Austen is said to have remarked as she started work on “Emma,” the last of her four novels to be published before her death in 1817. While English professor Stuart Sherman points out in his program essay for Chicago Shakespeare Theater that the two centuries since have proved her very wrong, I confess I found myself disliking the Emma Woodhouse in Paul Gordon's musical version of the book quite a bit.
At least in the first act.
Lora Lee Gayer does such a good job of embodying the misguided heroine of “Emma” that it's hard not to find her irritating, especially since she's on stage virtually the entire time. Rich and beautiful in scrumptious white gowns by costume designer Mariann Verheyen, with a mop of blond curls from wig designer Richard Jarvie, she's supremely entitled, conceited, self-confident, and smug about her accomplishments.
Chief among those accomplishments, according to Emma, is her matchmaking ability. Gordon's book, lovely score, and often witty lyrics work well together to further the story, and in the opening, she both congratulates herself for matching her former governess, Mrs. Weston (Kelli Harrington), with Mr. Weston (Michael Milligan) and, lamenting the loss of her close companion, turns her attention to the next challenge: finding a mate for her best friend, Harriet Smith (Ephie Aardema).
The man Emma has chosen for Harriett is Highbury's most eligible bachelor, the vicar Mr. Elton (Dennis William Grimes). Harriet, who doesn't know her parentage and thus has no social standing, goes along to please the friend she holds dear, but she actually has eyes for another, the farmer Robert
Martin (Ian Geers), a man of few words who is as simple as she is.
Emma's meddling infuriates long-time family friend and brother-in-law Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley), who calls her out in duets like “I Made the Match Myself” and “The Argument” and eventually helps her see the error of her ways—and us to find her more sympathetic. He's also in love with her, which is obvious even before his big declaration in the song “Emma.”
Several other characters who become important later are introduced early, perhaps too many for those who aren't familiar with the novel. They include Miss Bates (Marya Grandy), a victim of Emma's cruelty; her elderly mother, Mrs. Bates (Emily Goldberg), and Jane Fairfax (Erica Stephan), whom Emma considers her nemesis because she's more beautiful and more accomplished. Later on, Mr. Weston's estranged son, the dashing Frank Churchill (Devin DeSantis) shows up and, having been the subject of Emma's past fantasies, at first bears them out but soon proves not to be the man of her dreams. In fact, he's secretly in love with Jane.
The show is briskly directed by Barbara Gaines and mostly sung through. Musically, Gordon mines some themes for their humor with repetition (a little like “Peter and the Wolf”). Aardema's charming and vulnerable Harriet, for example, reprises her longing for “Mr. Robert Martin” several times and twice relives her “Humiliation” at the ball where Mr. Elton rejected her and proposed to Emma instead. Quite a few of this clever numbers are reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim, among them a dissection of “Relations” and “Have a Piece of Cake.”
Gaines elicits fine performances from the entire cast, but some of the funniest are in minor roles. Larry Yando is exceedingly droll as Emma's father, Mr. Woodhouse, who disapproves of the institution of marriage as much as of his daughter's machinations. Bri Sudia turns Mrs. Elton, the haughty, wealthy woman the vicar goes off and marries, into a comic tour de force we love to hate. And Geers makes the awkward Mr. Robert Martin, who struggles just to get out a few words, both hilarious and endearing.
Gaines's staging is both elegant and efficient. Billowing sheer white curtains and three big crystal chandeliers dominate Scott Davis's scenic design, which shifts seamlessly from ballroom to a variety of homes with just a doorway and a few pieces of furniture. Donald Holder's lighting creates the time of day and night and also casts a transformational glow on Verhyen's costumes for the women, which are in a pale pastel and white palette. (I'm not sure why, but it looks pretty). The men's outfits have splashes of color, like blue for Mr. Knightley's uniform. Chad Parsley's sound design and Roberta Duchak's music direction show off the singers and the five-person orchestra, which is behind a curtain, to best advantage. Jane Lanier's choreography draws on period dances and peaks at the ball.
Besides being slow to warm up to the heroine, who occasionally peppers her narration with a knowing nod and smile over her shoulder at the audience, I have two small reservations about Chicago Shakespeare's musical “Emma.” Despite some heat in their arguments, the needed chemistry between Emma and Mr. Knightley is mostly missing. And the overall tone doesn't have quite enough bite. I could almost imagine the show as a Disney animated film, if you know what I mean.