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

Muni’s K-Ingleside trains will resume service after a long hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
K-Ingleside train to return on May 15

Announcement comes on the heels of pressure from Supervisor Myrna Melgar

Demonstrators march from Mission High School towards the San Francisco Police station on Valencia Street. (Jordi Molina/ Special to the S.F. Examiner)
Vigil, march honors those killed by police

Deaths of Daunte Wright, Roger Allen and others prompt renewed calls for defunding

A Recology employee stands at the comapany’s recycling facility on Pier 96 in 2016. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)
Nuru scandal: Feds charge second former Recology executive with bribery

A second former Recology executive is facing charges for allegedly bribing ex-Public… Continue reading

Kiana Williams
Stanford’s Kiana Williams drafted by WNBA champion Seattle Storm

Kiana Williams is going from one championship team to another. A senior… Continue reading

Talika Fletcher, sister of Roger Allen, is consoled at a vigil to honor her brother, who was killed by Daly City Police on April 7, on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Supporters march for SF man killed by Daly City police

Struggle over fake gun ends in shooting of 44-year-old Roger Allen, DA says

Most Read