Witness the Americanization of ‘Emma’

“OK, OK,” says the commuter after the first dozen (or two) of those flashing “BAY BRIDGE CLOSED LABOR DAY WEEKEND” signs, “I got it!”

Similarly, anyone interested in theater has long understood and appreciated TheatreWorks’ “FIFTIETH WORLD PREMIERE” notice. Both factoids are important, and yet one wishes to get beyond them.

So, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play last weekend at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, company founder Robert Kelley’s famous, important, and well-advertised 50th world premiere?

“Emma,” a one-man musical by Paul Gordon (music, lyrics, book — the whole shebang), in the hands of stage director Kelley, dressed to the nines by Fumiko Bielefeldt and choreographed expertly by MaryBeth Cavanaugh, is delightful, charming, entertaining.

Why, then, does one leave the theater, shaking one’s head and muttering: “What was that?”

You see, “Emma” is said to have originated with Jane Austen and her 1815 novel of the same name. (In more contemporary terms, think Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale.) According to Gordon, “80 percent of the text” came from Austen. The head keeps shaking.

Classics can be updated, sometimes with great success, but changing a comedy of manners into a musically bland piece of 21st century lack of manners is rather strange. The original Emma was already a too-modern figure in pre-Victorian England, matchmaking blithely and disastrously, shocking and charming the reader.

And yet, Austen’s Emma has almost nothing to do with the element-of-nature actress playing her in Mountain View — the sensational Lianne Marie Dobbs, who channels Barbra Streisand, Ethel Merman and Olga Korbut all in one. In directing her, Kelley must have remembered the words of his beloved Stephen Sondheim: “She twitters/She floats/Isn’t that alarming? What is she, a bird?”

More authentic is Dani Marcus, the chief victim of Emma’s mismatched matchmaking, as a defenseless, utterly naive, totally endearing Harriett Smith, whose “Mr. Robert Martin” hymn renders the audience helpless with laughter. Timothy Gulan’s Mr. Nightly and George Ward’s Mr. Woodhouse (yes, the honorific is kept from the original) manage to be both effective and yet remind one of Austen’s writing.

The rest of the large, hardworking cast is given over the Gordon’s excessive modernization, acting too large, in an un-British in-your-face amplification.

The clowns, to evoke Sondheim again, have been sent in, and the Mountain View “Emma” is “rich … a farce … a merry-go-round.”

Emma ***

Presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 or 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 16

Tickets: $30 to $61

Contact: (650) 903-6000 or www.mvcpa.com

artsentertainmentOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

The Medical Examiner's Office van on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
San Francisco’s 2020 overdose deaths soar 59 percent to 699

Fatal drug overdoses surged by nearly 59 percent in San Francisco last… Continue reading

Police Commissioner John Hamasaki questions Chief Bill Scott at City Hall on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFPD should probe whether officers joined Capitol raid, commissioners say

Chief unaware of any members participating in insurrection

Homeless people's tents can be seen on Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 16, 2020. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/S.F. Examiner)
Statewide business tax could bring new funds to combat homelessness

San Francisco could get more than $100 million a year for housing, rental assistance, shelter beds

The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco (a mural by artist Jamie Treacy is pictued) has a lineup of free online programming including activities for youngsters scheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18. (Courtesy Demetri Broxton/Museum of the African Diaspora)
Stanford, Museum of the African Diaspora host MLK Day activities

Online offerings include films, music, discussion

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi presides the US House of Representatives vote on the impeachment of US President Donald Trump at the US Capitol, January 13, 2021, in Washington, DC. - The Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives on January 13 opened debate on a historic second impeachment of President Donald Trump over his supporters' attack of the Capitol that left five dead. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
House votes 232-197 to impeach Trump a second time

Focus shifts to Senate, where McConnell has signaled he may not stand by president

Most Read