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

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