A musical bonbon

‘Emma’

Emma Woodhouse (Lora Lee Gayer) and Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley) in Emma at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Emma Woodhouse (Lora Lee Gayer) and Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley) in Emma at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

4 stars

In an age when social media has usurped our lives, it’s refreshing to visit a time when people actually spoke to each other, and with eloquence. As in all her stories, Jane Austen’s fourth novel is an 1815 comedy of manners set in Georgian-Regency England. The title character, however, is unlike Austen’s other heroines in that Emma is pretty, smart and rich, but also strong-minded, overindulged and rather full of herself.

Because a woman’s goal and main occupation at that time focused on landing a good husband, Emma is also unlike her peers. While she fancies herself an accomplished matchmaker for other young women, Emma isn’t particularly interested in marriage herself. As one of the self-entitled, she finds meddling in other people’s lives far more fun and fulfilling than minding her own business.

Tony-nominated and Jeff Award-winning playwright Paul Gordon has captured Austen’s irrepressible spirit in his elegant, briskly-paced, brightly creative theatrical adaptation, now in the Courtyard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Add in Gordon’s lush musical score peppered with witty lyrics, and we have a musical bonbon that lifts the classic to another level of entertainment

Theatergoers will delight in seeing each of the novel’s characters brought to life under the sharp direction of Barbara Gaines. Austen fans will relish this delicious theatrical interpretation which includes stylized characterizations, witty dialogue and emphasizes character over plot.

Emma (Lora Lee Gayer) takes the impressionable Harriet Smith (Ephie Aardema) under her wing. (Photo by Liz Laure)
Emma (Lora Lee Gayer) takes the impressionable Harriet Smith (Ephie Aardema) under her wing. (Photo by Liz Laure).

Gaines’ production is truly a feast for the eye and ear. Highly inventive, the sixteen member cast features a multitalented company of energetic and versatile actors who portray all the major characters.

This gifted ensemble embodies the tenor and tone of Jane Austen’s various delightful personalities from proud, aristocratic matchmaker Emma Woodhouse and her stuffy father, so reluctant to change, to the innocent, endearing Harriet Smith and Emma’s candidly critical neighbor and friend, George Knightly.

The technical support for this play is as topnotch as its cast. Scott Davis’ modest but gorgeous and  versatile scenic design, works well on the Courtyard stage. His pastel palette is largely comprised of draped chiffon fabric, crystal chandeliers and an occasional doorway or piece of furniture.

Mariann Verheyen’s exquisitely chic pastel period costumes, each one unique to the character, provides additional texture, color and variety. Donald Holder’s lighting design beautifully bathes the cast in the soft, Regency Era illumination of English gardens and drawing rooms. Richard Jarvie’s period-perfect wig and makeup designs also help set the right tone.

And Kory Danielson’s five-member orchestra, the always expert musical direction provided by Roberta Duchak and choreography created by Jane Lanier, make Gordon’s music sing.

In the title role, Lora Lee Gayer magnificently commandeers and grounds the story. Seldom offstage, she  appears to be everything Jane Austen describes in her novel: handsome, clever and rich. She’s a constant, graceful and articulate catalyst who provokes and inspires the rest of the character

But Emma is also spoiled, headstrong and supremely overestimates her talent as a matchmaker. Reminding this reviewer of a cross between Reese Witherspoon and Kristin Chenoweth, Gayer displays a mellifluous vocal style, a bubbling personality and bountiful amounts of style while playing a woman who’s blind to the calamities of how meddling in other people’s lives may often lead her astray.

Emma (Lora Lee Gayer) comforts her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Larry Yando) in Emma at Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo by Liz Lauren)
Emma (Lora Lee Gayer) comforts her father, Mr. Woodhouse (Larry Yando) in Emma at Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo by Liz Lauren)

The supporting cast is a delight. Brad Standley effortlessly takes on the role of George Knightley. He is charming and charismatic, possessed with an aristocratic attitude that allows him to observe Emma’s machinations and offer a gentle scolding. Possessing a radiant singing voice, Standley caresses every tune with ease, especially the title song

The gifted Larry Yando, a favorite Chicago character actor who’s been enjoyed in shows all over town, plays the morose Mr. Woodhouse with proper aplomb and good humor.

Ephie Aardema is wonderful as Harriet Smith, the effervescent subject of  Emma’s next matchmaking project. Aardema makes this sweet and innocent character an audience favorite. She’s also a little spunky in her love for Robert Martin, played with shy adoration by Ian Geers.

Other standouts include silver-throated Devin DeSantis as Frank Churchill; Marya Grandy as funny, eccentric, spinster Miss Bates; Kelli Harrington, all grace and understated glamor as Miss Taylor, Emma’s beloved governess and friend. Also kudos go to Erica Stephan as shy, reticent and fascinating Jane Fairfax and gifted character actress, Bri Sudi, who is brilliantly comedic as Elton’s wealthy but pretentious and boorish new wife.

For fans of Jane Austen’s work, this two-hour musical visit to fictional Highbury, England will enchant and entertain. Although many theatergoers may only know this story from the more modern,  1995 film adaptation, “Clueless,” or the 1996 period comedy film, that starred Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role, Paul Gordon’s adaptation breathes new life into this story.

He makes the somewhat complicated tale about a self-entitled busybody amusing, honest and authentic. And, the greatest achievement of Barbara Gaines’ loving production, is it is bound to inspire new readers to pick up the novel while motivating diehard Jane Austen fans to revisit it and her other novels.

DETAILS:”Emma” is at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the Courtyard Theater space on Navy Pier, Chicago, through March 15. Running time:  2 hours plus one intermission. For tickets and other information call (312) 595-5600 or visit Chicago Shakes.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit TheatreInChicago.

 

 

 

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