During intermission of the Cincinnati Playhouse's season opener, the musical Jane Austen's Emma, questions were asked. A man said to his wife, "What is this about?" A woman asked her friend, "Can't Emma see that Mr. Knightley is in love with her?"
That gap -- and I don't mean between men and women -- summarizes whether you'll be charmed by this show.
If you're clueless about Austen's witty romances, you'll likely be bewildered by the angst over matchmaking and gossip. The most serious drama is whether the heroine will realize she's not a very good matchmaker. If you've read Emma, you'll not only be in heaven -- you'll know what’s going to happen from start to finish.
Paul Gordon's script and lyrics capture Austen's witty dialogue, from the sparring of Emma (Lianne Marie Dobbs) and Knightley (Timothy Gulan) to the emptyheaded sweetness of Harriet Smith (Dani Marcus).
Gordon is also the show's composer, and his score is truly chamber music for piano, cello, oboe/English horn and violin; four musicians perch atop a stone-arched gazebo surrounded by an oversized floral proscenium (design by John Ezell). Gordon's music evokes the delicate precision of the early 19th century and uses melody to convey character.
Character is what Emma is about, in the story's delightful comic portraits and in Emma's ultimate realization of her own shallowness and the depth of character of people she's taken for granted. As Emma, Dobbs captures these qualities perfectly, playing both heroine and narrator, directly addressing the audience and pulling the strings of those around her.
Gulan's Knightley is thoroughly snarky (and then romantically honest), and Marcus provides wide-eyed comedy as innocent Harriet is steered through potential romances when she's already met her true love, the equally simple Robert Martin (Alex Organ).
If you love Austen's novels, you'll want to catch this production, although it's a tad long (2:45 with intermission). If not, I suggest you stay home and read one.
JANE AUSTEN'S EMMA continues through Oct. 3 at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.
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