CST’s charming, joyful “Emma” is a perfect Austen evening

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Liz Lauren.

If Pride and Prejudice is the most beloved novel by Jane Austen, Emma must surely be nipping at its heels. It’s also one of the most adapted of her novels, a trend that began with the 1995 movie “Clueless.” This year is especially rich. Lifeline Theatre produced a lovely and memorable version last fall, a new film of the book is coming out, and now Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, which hit with Paul Gordon’s musical adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, is presenting his new musical version of Emma, a charming and lovely new show that preserves all of the joy, humor, and human foolishness of Austen’s book. Anchored by Gordon’s sweet, Sondheim-influenced score and Lora Lee Gayer’s memorable performance as Emma Woodhouse, this Emma is a treat for the Austen lover in all of us.

With direction by Barbara Gaines and music direction by Roberta Duchak, this beautifully sung and acted version of Emma captures its audience from the outset with Gaynor’s rendition of a song called “I Made the Match Myself” that perfectly introduces us to the title character with all of her quirks, and also to her relationship with Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley), a lifelong friend who is the only one willing to call Emma out for her silly self-indulgences. Knightley spars with her like Benedick with Beatrice, though he is also a typically taciturn Austen hero when it comes to his own emotions. As to Emma, her unshatterable self-confidence—she claims dubious credit for matching her former nanny (Kelli Harrington) with the wealthy Mr. Weston (Michael Milligan) and thus imagines herself a “genius” at matchmaking—is rivaled only by her perfect inability to see what really lies in anyone’s heart…including her own.

Gayer’s Emma feels a bit arrogant at first—or perhaps that’s just how the opening song, which is a community paean to the wonderful Miss Woodhouse, makes her seem—but we quickly understand that her efforts always stem from trying to help others to find happiness. The fact that her doing so usually has the opposite effect is completely lost on her as she undertakes to find a match for a new friend, Harriet Smith (Ephie Aardema), whom she takes under her wing upon learning that the young lady has no family anywhere. Aardema is endearing and comically brilliant as Harriet. With her singing voice tuned to something honest, sweet, and understated, she gives Harriet just the right touch. Her “Humiliation” is perhaps the best solo number of the night as she humorously bemoans being the only one at a ball who finds herself alone all night, and her oft-repeated theme about her affection for “Mr. Robert Martin” (Ian Geers), a farmer whom Emma sees as “beneath” her friend, is utterly lovely.

As is always the case with Austen, there are numerous other characters who populate Emma’s world. Among them are Dennis William Grimes’ wonderfully overdone take on Mr. Elton, the new vicar (Bri Sudia is even broader and just as perfect as the woman Elton eventually marries), Marya Grandy as the hyperspeed-talking Miss Bates, Erica Stephan and her glorious voice as the extremely talented but shy Jane Fairfax, Devin DeSantis as the mysterious Frank Churchill (with whom Emma falls in love before even meeting him), and the inimitable Larry Yondo as Emma’s father, the hypochondriacal and change-averse Mr. Woodhouse. All of these actors are perfectly cast and, when their turns in the plot’s structure arrive, each gets the opportunity to shine. 

Ultimately, of course, this is a story that focuses on Emma’s friendships with Harriet and Mr. Knightley. Her mentorship of Harriet—as wrong-headed as it often is—leads to most of the major developments in the plot that don’t stem from her misplaced antagonism to Jane Fairfax; Emma is rarely right in her perceptions about her fellow human beings, and that is actually part of what endears her to us…and to Standley’s Knightley, whose plaintive “Emma” is a beautiful ballad to a love that may only exist in his tortured mind. In real life, he is content to be her conscience, even if she does ignore most of what he tells her.

Gaines’ direction here is superb, something that is clear not only by the brilliant portrayals by her cast but also the fluid stage movement—aided by Jane Lanier’s choreography—and her exquisite control over the tonal structure of the whole play, which is brightly lit (by Donald Holder), exceedingly well-costumed (by Mariann Verheyen, who must have found every empire-waist dress in Chicago Shakespeare’s vast costume collection), with perfectly balanced sound (by Chad Parsley). Scott Davis’s sparse but elegant set design provides just the right touch to highlight what is happening with all of these characters, with whom it is hard not to fall in love, and Gordon’s book, lyrics, and music—all remarkably true to the novel—help us to do so.

For Austen fans, this Emma is a must-see. For those who are not (and what is wrong with you?), there is enough humor and pure joy here to make it enjoyable to see with a loved one. Even the hardest hearts can’t help joining in the applause when the lovers who are actually meant for each other finally come together. Along with “Clueless,” this is one of the best adaptations of this novel I’ve ever seen.

Emma is now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier, Chicago, IL, until Mar 15. The show runs approximately two hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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