Joan Gross: TheatreWorks tries on Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s heroine Emma Woodhouse is a congenial, unmarried young lady who delights in meddling in other people’s affairs and is perpetually trying to unite men and women. Yet despite her interest in romance, Emma is clueless about her own situation.

TheatreWorks presents the world premiere of the musical “Emma,” based on Austen’s popular novel, in Mountain View. The show opens Wednesday and runs through Sept. 16.

“Emma” was developed in 2006 as part of the company’s New Works Initiative by Tony Award nominee Paul Gordon, who wrote the music, lyrics and libretto for the production.

Gordon perceives “Emma” as one of the first literary romantic comedies ever written.

“I have taken the exact story and used many words straight from the novel,” he says. “It has been very challenging to keep the language and writing lyrics that have great meaning in this time period.”

He calls “Emma” a “wonderful snapshot of another time period, learning about how a society interacted. It is a universal love story, one of the best-written of all time, that should appeal to everyone today.”

Lianne Marie Dobbs, who plays Emma, has long been an avid reader of Austen’s novels.

“This story is like a chess game where everyone has to express affection for each other, and make advances that follow very strict rules and manners,” she says. “Genuine people come up with obstacles, allowing the viewer to see the outcome before the characters do.”

Dobbs sees a bit of her own personality in Emma. They both have a lot of opinions. She says, “Friends love asking me for advice regarding their relationships and careers. I need to learn to keep them to myself, as there is also a lot I don’t know.”

In the show, Dobbs has a dual role as both the protagonist and narrator. If she’s doing her job, she says, “I want the audience to remember the follies of youth. Think back to a time in your life when you thought you knew everything, and then discovered you didn’t. As Emma learns through her matchmaking, she realizes her human faults and takes charge.”

TheatreWorks founding Artistic Director Robert Kelley directs this production.

“Jane Austen was clearly a tremendously exciting voice of her era, depicting her understanding of the character and human spirit that has made her works last,” Kelley says.

Realizing that many audience members already may have a mental picture of the characters in the book, he says, “We would like to create a professional version of what you’d expect to see of this Regency period, with a sense of flow and authenticity of character. We want the audience to feel the sense of delight of characters learning to love, just as portrayed in the novel.”

“Emma” is onstage at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. Tickets are $25 to $61. Call (650) 903-6000 or visit theatreworks.org for more information.

jgross@examiner.com  

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