AISLE SAY San Francisco


Book, Music and Lyrics by Paul Gordon
Adapted from the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Robert Kelley
Presented by TheatreWorks
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

When TheatreWorks premiered "Emma" in 2007, it became the most popular show in the company's 46 years.

After successful productions elsewhere, it has returned to TheatreWorks with a new title, "Jane Austen's Emma," and a few subtle alterations but with some of the same actors and the same director, Robert Kelley.

Paul Gordon, who wrote the music, lyrics and book, adapted this musical from the now 200-year-old novel by Jane Austen. Its title character, Miss Emma Woodhouse, played again by Lianne Marie Dobbs, is a member of the landed gentry in an English village in 1815.

After successfully engineering the marriage of her governess, she fancies herself a matchmaker. Because of her meddling and a series of misconceptions, however, subsequent results aren't as successful for Emma or anyone else.

Nevertheless, most characters are formally polite toward her, as is the norm in Regency England. Only one person, Mr. Knightley (Timothy Gulan, also reprising his role), who has known her for a long time, has the audacity to call her to task.

Most of the time, they bicker. It takes a while for them to realize they're in love.

Despite Gordon's tuneful, accessible music, the first act lacks the vibrancy that characterized the original production. It may be that Dobbs tries too hard to be perky and all-knowing.

The second act is much better as Emma matures, recognizes her mistakes and makes sincere amends for the mischief she has unwittingly caused.

Dobbs sings well in her solos and some of her duets. She and Leigh Ann Larkin as her protege, the hapless Miss Harriet Smith, blend particularly well in their duets. Dobbs' duets with Gulan don't blend as well. He forces some of his climactic musical lines.

Larkin's performance is the most noteworthy in the production because she makes Miss Smith so guileless and so sympathetic.

Strong support comes from Travis Leland as the handsome Mr. Frank Churchill, who seems to take an interest in Emma; and Sharon Rietkerk as Miss Jane Fairfax, a potential rival to Emma.

Musical director William Liberatore conducts three other instrumentalists from the piano.

Joe Ragey's set features projections, along with a few set pieces, to establish locations and facilitate quick scene changes. The elegant costumes are by Fumiko Bielefeldt with lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Jeff Mockus.

Despite the first act's shortcomings, the opening night audience gave the two-hour, 10-minute production a rousing ovation at the curtain call.

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