Later this month, a new film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma will open in cinemas, starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Thoroughbreds, “Peaky Blinders”) as the titular matchmaker with questionable, if endearing, motives. Meanwhile, Chicago gets a much closer look at the classic romantic comedy of errors in a musical version on stage at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre through March 15. Directed by the theater’s Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, this version is billed as “A New Musical,” with a book, lyrics and music by Paul Gordon (a Tony nominee for his adaptation of Jane Eyre). The “new” part is a bit confusing, as a quick spot of research indicates the musical has been around since either 2006 or 2011, though it appears to have never gained much traction. Regardless, the show is now enjoying its first production at the iconic theater out at the end of Navy Pier, and this noteworthy adaptation is indeed something quite fresh and fun, as Emma Woodhouse (Lora Lee Gayer) sing-songs her way through her familiar journey to happily ever after.
Best known as Austen’s cheekier adventure (as opposed to the often more seriously regarded Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility), Emma follows our heroine as she attempts to meddle with and matchmake for all the various singletons around her, mainly a new friend with no social status to speak of, Harriet Smith (Ephie Aardema, who shines as Emma’s inverse). The brother of her sister’s husband (it’s confusing), Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley) is a neighbor and constant presence in her life; his rapport with Emma means he, more than anyone else, can hold her accountable for her trifling and conspiring. A robust ensemble, Emma is joined by several friends, relations and neighbors, including Mr. Elton (Dennis William Grimes), the local vicar Emma tries to match with Harriet; Mrs. Weston (Kelli Harrington), Emma’s one-time governess now married to Mr. Weston (Michael Milligan), father of the dashing Frank Churchill (Devin DeSantis); and Emma’s curmudgeonly father, Mr. Woodhouse (Larry Yando, best known as Scrooge in Goodman Theatre’s annual production of A Christmas Carol).
Gordon’s transformation of Emma from a classic, proper period piece to a cheery, whimsical musical is quite successful; by intermission, I was already humming to myself some of the more engaging melodies. And there are quite a few of them; alongside Emma’s narration breaking the fourth wall to keep us up to speed on who’s who and what she’s thinking at any given moment, the production clips through 13 different numbers in the first act alone. Gayer, a charming Emma with spot on comedic timing, appeared slightly reserved in her singing; she never quite takes advantage of the few chances she does get to belt out a great line (though to be sure, this is not a “belt it out” musical). Standley, however, rises to fill any vocal gaps; their first number together (“The Argument”) has them sparring over Emma’s latest convoluted plans, and it highlights both their chemistry together and his leading-man chops. By the end of Act 2, wrapping up as it does with a number of reprises, the tunes—and the voices that deliver them—are familiar and enjoyable.
Staged rather simply, with billowing, sheer white curtains, crystal chandeliers, fly-in doors and minimal scenery (designed by Scott Davis), the whole production has a crisp, clean feel to it; Emma wears white while the other women are in beige and the men barely register a color bolder than navy blue. Colorful lighting choices (by Donald Holder) imbue the story with a vitality that shines on the essentially blank canvas, even if the neutral color palette leaves one yearning for the BBC’s bold, vibrant 2009 adaptation, all fuchsias and golds. Instead, the whiteness of this production is, unfortunately, amplified by the cast’s monochromatic appearance; not a single person of color appears even in an ensemble role, let alone as a character with lines. It’s an unfortunate choice 20 years into a new millennium, one the production team certainly should have noticed long before opening night.
But I digress…in the end, Emma succeeds because it embraces its own romantic center. Indeed, the opening night audience was feeling the love, with plenty of laughter, at least one (very well earned) moment of spontaneous applause and even a standing ovation at curtain call. When the material is as essential as Austen’s; when the musical translation is as delightful as Gordon’s; and when the performances are as strong as Gayer’s, Standley’s and others, there’s a lot to love about a show we already know so well.
Emma, directed by Barbara Gaines, is playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater through March 15. Tickets are $35-$90; a full performance schedule, including accessible performances throughout the run, is available online here.
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