Adorable Emma. Impossible Emma. Self-absorbed and totally “Clueless” (anybody remember Alicia Silverstone’s breakout movie?) Emma. Jane Austen’s irrepressible heroine, who gets her kicks from meddling in other people’s lives while not having a notion about her own, has been captivating audiences since she first appeared in print 200 years ago.
Turned into a sparkling jewel of a musical by Paul Gordon (“Jane Eyre,” “Daddy Long Legs”), that received its world premiere in 2007 at TheatreWorks — the company that also developed a little show called “Memphis” — it smashed all box office records for the Silicon Valley theater and went on to productions across the country. Now it’s back at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto, Calif., just in time for the holiday season, and what a gift it is. All dressed up in Fumiko Bielefeldt’s period-perfect costumes and wrapped brightly in set designer Joe Ragey’s Regency living rooms, ballrooms and gardens, replete with sliding mirrors and village storefronts, it shines as bright as the candles in the sconces on the walls.
Emma Woodhouse (talented Lianne Marie Dobbs, who created the role and is as charming as Emma herself) is the daughter of a gentleman (a sputtering curmudgeonly Richert Easley) and does not feel the pressure of necessary wedlock that motivates so many of Austen’s more-impoverished heroines. So she sets about arranging the marriages of others, first her former governess (Lee Ann Payne) and then, spurred by her initial success, the hapless Harriet Smith, an orphan in need of polishing on the rough edges (the delightfully klutzy Leigh Ann Larkin, whose song “Humiliation” is a comic highlight of the show).
But all does not go as well the second time around as Emma’s plans are thwarted, first by the prissy vicar Mr. Elton (Brian Herndon) who has set his sights higher, then by the simple farmer Robert Martin (Nick Nakashima), who is Harriet’s true love, and finally, by Harriet herself when she falls (briefly) for Mr. Knightley (a wonderful Timothy Gulan), Emma’s longtime friend and gentle critic who will become much more to her in time. It seems that our girl has created her own Frankenstein’s monster and, when Harriet finally stands up for herself, it is something to behold.
The chemistry between Gulan and Dobbs (who are reprising their roles from the original production, as is Herndon) is perfection, as the older practical man and the flighty girl spar verbally and emotionally, and their voices combine beautifully. Especially powerful is Gulan’s “Emma,” the love song of a confirmed bachelor. The rest of the cast of singing actors, including Sharon Rietkerk as the mysterious, accomplished Jane Fairfax, Lauren Cohn as her slightly annoying, too-talkative aunt, and Travis Leland as the handsome, enigmatic Frank Churchill, who briefly engages Emma’s attentions as the new man in town, as well as the small chorus, also perform (as Ms. Austen might put it) exceedingly well. William Liberatore’s small orchestral ensemble does yeoman service in the pit. TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley keeps the complicated plot moving quickly and smoothly with his usual expertise.
Composer/lyricist Gordon’s adaptation of Austen’s much-beloved book is extremely clear and abundantly clever. It hits all the high spots without dwelling on anything long enough to be tedious. His music runs in a pleasant but forgettable “Les Miz” style, but the lyrics are highly witty and do a lot to move the plot along. That said, could it be possible for his “Emma” to follow in the footsteps of that other TheatreWorks New Works Festival-developed musical “Memphis” all the way to Broadway and beyond? Well, as Emma and Harriet sing in the second act, “Stranger Things Have Happened.”