At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Jane Austen remains one of the gold standards of Western literature. Here is this unmarried woman living an outwardly unexciting life in the English provinces in the early 1800’s spinning masterpieces of fiction out the daily routine of domestic life in small town society. Yet out of this narrow world she created six major novels that sparkle with wit, irony, and sympathy for flawed characters.
Austen’s fiction has been adapted into a number of successful droll comedies, some happily presented by the Northlight Theatre. “Emma,” perhaps her greatest novel, has been converted into a musical now on pleasurable view at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
The musical version of “Emma” is the work (music, lyrics, and book) of Paul Gordon, who previously won praise for his stage adaptation of Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” in 2015. Gordon’s adaptation, and the CST production, can be paid the ultimate Austenian compliment—it beautifully captures the charm and romance and irony of the original.
In a sense, Austen wrote the same novel six times. A young woman eventually marries an eligible man, but only after a series of usually comic difficulties that lead both characters to gain the self-knowledge required for a happy marriage. In her witty, elegant prose, Austen also shrewdly wrote about the social institutions of her time, especially the importance of class, marriage, and money. Few authors have matched Austen’s sure eye for human weakness. Outright villains are rare in her work. Instead, she thrives on creating well meaning but misguided heroes and heroines who have to learn life’s lessons before they can lead happy lives.
The title character in Austen’s story is Emma Woodhouse, an upper class young lady living with her father in the town of Highbury. Emma has too much time on her hands so she amuses herself by matchmaking and generally managing lives of people around her. Emma’s meddling creates havoc and a lot of confusion and hard feelings before everything straightens out at the end, with all the notable single men and women in the story, including Emma herself, properly mated..
Emma’s first project is deflecting a young woman named Harriet Smith from a suitable match with a local farmer, whose social status simply will not do, though Harriet herself “is the natural daughter of an unknown person.” Soon the plot is complicated by appearances from other characters, and it may take the spectator a bit of time to sort out the Eltons, the Bates’s, the Westons, Jane Fairfax, and so on. The headstrong Emma frequently crosses verbal swords with a wealthy landowner named Mr, Knightly, who chides Emma for her interferences. It takes the audience very little time to recognize that once all the relationships are sorted out, Emma and Mr.Knightly will finally recognize that they are made for each other, and their clinch at the end of the play drew an approving round of applause from the first night audience.
The novel is Austen’s longest and inevitably much must be discarded by the adaptor to accommodate both words and music in about two hours of stage time. But Cooper does a first-rate job of keeping the narratives comprehensible while shining revealing lights on the characters and their defects. The language sounds like pinpoint Austen and. The music, which takes up at least half of the evening, concentrates on songs that either advance the storyline or illuminate the characters and their states of mind. A five-piece chamber quintet accompanies the performers from behind a curtain, its sound replicating the early 19th century feel of the show.
The CST production is fortunate in its choice of Emma, who serves as both central character and narrator and rarely leaves the stage. Lora Lee Gayer brings Emma to life, initially in her snobbery and arrogance and manipulation. It’s a delight to watch Geyer’s Emma gradually and credibly is pulled down from her high horse to recognize that she has wronged people around her with her meddling. She and Knightly (a virile and astringent Brad Standley) recognize, after a hard internal struggle, that they are the mates for each other, and a fun marriage it should be between these two attractive but strong-willed characters.
Ephie Aardema very nearly steals the show as Harriet Smith, an innocent and appealing girl taken under Emma’s wing. Thanks mostly to Emma’s intrusions, Harriet must circumvent impossible romances with Parson Elton and Knightly before ending up where she belonged from the outset, with her farmer lad. Aardema is a winsome Harriet, out of her depth among her “social betters” but with a better heart than many around her. And Aardema sings beautifully.
There are also valuable contributions from Michael Mulligan and Kelli Harrington as Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Marya Grandy and Emily Goldberg as two Bates women, Ian Geers as Harriet’s farmer swain, and Devin DiSantis as Frank Churchill, the Weston’s feckless son. Erica Stephan is Jane Fairfax, a major player in the romance muddles, and Dennis William Grimes is as close to a villain as the plot provides as the on-the-make Parson Elton.
Two performances prove the adage that there are no small roles in proper hands. The inimitable Larry Yando has a very minor role as Emma’s father but in his brief appearances he turns the curmudgeonly old gaffer into a comic joy. Bri Sudia, who always delivers no matter what the role, is given a cameo role as the Parson Elton’s eventual wife. Sudia’s Mrs. Elton is obnoxious and officious and takes over her scenes from the moment she first speaks. The mainstream of the musical would not have been impaired by the omission of those two characters, but the audience would have been deprived of a pair of droll and funny performances.
The show’s physical design relies primarily on Mariann Verheyen’s spot-on period costumes, especially the flowing white and off white gowns worned with comfortable elegance by the female characters. The set by Scott Davis is minimalist, primarily pieces of furniture moved on and off stage, some fancy chandeliers, and a single door that rises and falls from rear stage. The historically accurate look provided by the costumes creates all the sense of time and place the action needs. Donald Holder designed the lighting and Chad Parsley the sound. Jane Lanier created the graceful period dances and music director Roberta Duchak is the musical director. CST artistic director Barbara Gaines presides over the entire presentation with taste, intelligence, and impeccable casting.
A successful staging of an Austen work is one of the great pleasures of urbane playgoing and filmgoing. Paul Gordon and the CST have formed a bull’s-eye artistic partnership in this musical venture. The CST is one of the few area organizations with the financial and artistic resources to assemble a production this accomplished and they have used their resources wisely.. Catch this show while you can.
“Emma” gets a rating of
“Emma” runs through March 15 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 pm., p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $90. Call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com/emma.
Contact Dan: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. February 2020
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