By Patrick O’Brien
It may not be a truth universally acknowledged, but, in musical theater, Paul Gordon might be the dark horse of the past 20 years. Consider: his choice of source material is typically classic (read: public domain) literature, and he writes his musicals to be produced on a fairly modest scale. Consequently, He Does Get Produced — sometimes on Broadway, but, more crucially to his endgame, his work is popular with regional theaters. Worldwide theaters, even, as he was one of the first composers to embrace the potential of streaming live theater, and has even entered the streaming arena.
The miracle of it all is that none of his work feels mercenary. Quite the contrary; he’s a genuinely inventive chap whose deft touch for melody or turn-of-phrase can set these delicate classics spinning like a glass marble.
Fortunately, the esteemed novelist Jane Austen, his most recent collaborator, has delicacy and wit to spare, and they’ve been having a splendid time. Emma was Gordon’s first Austen adaptation, followed a few years later by Sense & Sensibility, for which Chicago Shakes produced the world premiere. (His Pride & Prejudice premiered last December out West.) It was perhaps inevitable that Emma, that busybody, would make her way to Chicago, but as a special treat, Barbara Gaines, Sense‘s director, is back in the coachman’s seat for another fine light-as-soufflé comedy of manners.
And what manners they are: Emma Woodhouse (Lora Lee Gayer), living a genteel existence in the idyll of Regency-era Highbury, gets it in her head that she has the matchmaker’s touch after her governess marries a mutual acquaintance for whom Emma had made an introduction. But whereas Dolly Gallagher Levi meddled, Emma merely dabbles in matchmaking much like she merely dabbles in portraiture and the pianoforte. Thus, she causes no end of silly headaches and sober heartaches, none more so, perhaps, than for her guileless protogé Harriet Smith (Ephie Aardema)–whose heart wants a simple farmer, but who instead gets shoved at a blithering vicar — and her sister’s brother-in-law Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley), who’s never far away when an opportunity to critique Emma’s behavior, which is often. The usual Austenian shenanigans — balls, surprise visitors from London, and repartee building to brilliant revelations of love and humility–ensue.
Much like Sense & Sensibility, Shakes’s go at Emma is a handsome affair, especially Scott Davis‘s curtains, chandeliers, and grey teak thrust. Likewise (and predictably), Mariann Verheyen‘s period-perfect finery. True, it’s a chamber musical playing the Big Room, but Gaines keys the performances accordingly without sacrificing intimacy. Thus, happily, Gayer’s Emma emerges as a sharp, prime comedy lead, even for all her character’s oblivious dilettantism. She learns, rest assured, and her final understanding with a certain someone, expected as it may be, makes this piece a must for the Valentine’s Day season.
But the moment truly belongs to Gordon (and Austen, who must be quite well-pleased somewhere.) Other musical theater adaptations of Austen’s work gild the lily, mistaking wit for verbosity and generally making a spectacle out of what are, at heart, small moments. A pop songwriter prior to joining the theatrical fold, Gordon paints in delightful watercolors. Take Emma’s song of (mis)purpose, “A Gentleman’s Daughter.” With a simple lush waltz, we have it all: hooky, swoony melody with equal footing in Austen’s world and ours; matched by a lyric that’s both whip-smart, empathetic, and yet just wrong enough. And, in a nod to the musicals of the 80s, it returns as a motif, and it’s welcome at every turn.
If Gordon’s your horse and Gaines is your coachman, you’d be foolish not to go along for a swift little ride to see an old friend like Emma.
“Emma” plays through March 15 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. For tickets or for more information, click here. Photos by Liz Lauren.