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Theater review: TheatreWorks reprises Jane Austen's 'Emma'

 

Even as a teenager, Lianne Marie Dobbs was a die-hard Jane Austen fan. She threw "Pride and Prejudice"-themed sleepovers at which she and her friends played a BBC video adaptation of the novel repeatedly, giggling with delight at the sight of Colin Firth -- as Mr. Darcy -- dashingly removing his top hat.

This holiday season, Dobbs will help bring Austen's swoon-worthy, witty British world to life for local audiences when she plays the title role in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's musical production of "Emma," with music, lyrics and book by Paul Gordon. It's a revival of the show she originated with the company back in 2006 as part of the New Works Festival. "Emma" was subsequently developed into a full-fledged musical production (again starring Dobbs) which went on to become the most popular and successful show in TheatreWorks' history. Helmed once again by the company's founder and artistic director, Robert Kelley, the show will be back on stage in time to celebrate the bicentennial of the publication of Austen's novel.

The musical "really seemed to electrify people," Kelley explained in a recent interview. "We started thinking about doing it again someday, because so many TheatreWorks patrons had an ongoing interest."

The story follows the exploits of spoiled and headstrong young Emma Woodhouse, who, from her privileged position in a Regency-era English village, assuredly meddles in the romantic lives of her friends and neighbors. Emma considers herself an expert on matchmaking and love yet is clueless when it comes to matters of her own heart (and yes, the 1995 teen comedy, "Clueless," is another "Emma" adaptation). Over the course of the narrative, Emma finds that she may not have all the answers, and that love has a way of shaking up even the most confident of heroines.

Basically, it's the stuff rom-com dreams are made of.

"I love romantic comedies; I always have," Dobbs said. "I'm addicted to movies with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. I am reminded constantly that Jane Austen first wrote that kind of romantic-comedy dialogue that I love: that bickering repartee that's really delicious to watch, and you can't wait for them to kiss each other."

While Austen famously said of Emma that she'd written a heroine nobody but her author would like, Dobbs said fans actually find the plucky, exasperating but good-hearted know-it-all endearing.

"I think they do love her because she is flawed, and while she is slow to apologize and slow to learn, there is something really fun about watching an imperfect person trip herself and pick herself back up," Dobbs said.

Dobbs pointed to a song from the musical titled "Epiphany," during which Emma realizes her unexpected feelings for another character, as one of her favorites in the show.

"It's such a wonderful song for Emma as she goes back and forth -- 'I feel this but I've always thought this,'" she said. "It's an actor's dream to have that sort of journey, not before or after but literally during the song. It rings so true to me. It has the most truth behind it of maybe any love song I've ever sung."

Though the production is set several centuries ago, "the music is in the pop/contemporary genre," Kelley explained. "It doesn't try to mimic the sound of the 1800s. That's one of the things that makes the play feel so relevant to us: the music is accessible from our own point of view.

"It has a chamber feeling to it," he continued. "There's a four-piece band that includes strings and reeds, but it manages to bridge the gap between what you'd find at a ball in someone's home in 1815 and music you'd want to put on in your car today."

Dobbs praised Gordon's adaptation for getting to the heart of Austen's story while streamlining it for theater audiences. "One thing I love about this stage production is that you really get to see the discrepancies between Emma's view of what's going on in the love lives of those around her and what's really happening," she said. "I think that's really genius that he was able to get that. There are things that the audience sees that I don't, and that's a real accomplishment."

This time around, TheatreWorks' "Emma," with its cast of 16, will be performed in Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre, rather than in the larger Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The current space is "much more intimate, whole new set, a different look," Kelley said. "There are some advantages in terms of romantic scenes, the interplay of characters who are in a drawing room or a lovely outdoor garden."

Though some elements of the show have changed, Kelley said Dobbs' performance is one thing he's thrilled to see repeated.

"It's really fun for me to see her bringing Emma back to life," he said. "She made an awful lot of fans in our original production. She's the only Emma for me."

What: Jane Austen's "Emma," presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Dec. 2-Jan. 2. See website for complete performance schedule.

Cost: $19-$80

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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