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Chicago Shakespeare’s musical ‘Emma’ isn’t quite clueless, but it misses Austen mark

Amid all the glittery surfaces, Jane Austen’s “Emma” ends up getting lost in translation.

Emma Woodhouse (Lora Lee Gayer) meets her match in Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley) “Emma,” a new Chicago Shakespeare Theater musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel, directed by Barbara Gaines in the Courtyard Theater.
Emma Woodhouse (Lora Lee Gayer) meets her match in Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley) “Emma,” a new Chicago Shakespeare Theater musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel, directed by Barbara Gaines in the Courtyard Theater.
Liz Lauren

Paul Gordon’s musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel “Emma” is visually and sonically pleasant. It is not especially memorable.

In the great Lazy Susan of musical theater condiments, “Emma” would be the mayonnaise: innocuous and dubiously necessary.

That’s problem one with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production that’s just opened under the direction of Barbara Gaines.

Problem two is the titular protagonist. As in Austen’s book, Emma Woodhouse starts out as a snob who feels entitled to manage the lives of people socially or financially beneath her. Austen’s Emma is lovable and interesting and full of genuinely good intentions, even at her most cluelessly obnoxious.

Gordon’s Emma is not. She is much harder to get on board with despite dialogue cleverly cherry-picked from the book.

Onstage, Emma (Lora Lee Gayer) is an outwardly bratty, inwardly opaque twentysomething with affluenza. She is shiny, superficial and seemingly lacking the empathy chip.

Gayer’s fabulous vocals deliver the goods (the anthemic “Epiphany” is terrific) in Gordon’s music and lyrics and she’s got a charming presence. Still, there’s only so much she can do with a script that doesn’t give its heroine depth.

There is also a problem with stakes facing the unmarried women in Emma’s circle. Austen never lets readers forget that, for single women without means, the workhouse was a constant threat, as was a potentially catastrophic expulsion from acceptable society. At Chicago Shakespeare, those dire possibilities aren’t even hinted at. Everything feels rather trifling, the stakes never higher than summer wheat in winter.

The plot centers on Emma and her sister’s brother-in-law George Knightley (Brad Standley). Emma and Mr. Knightley (nobody wants to call him by his first name) banter like the lesser cousins of Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Even if you don’t know how Austen’s tale ends, you’ll be able to predict where this banter is going.

Emma Woodhouse (Lora Lee Gayer, left) takes  Harriet Smith (Ephie Aardema) under her wing in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Emma” the musical.
Emma Woodhouse (Lora Lee Gayer, left) takes Harriet Smith (Ephie Aardema) under her wing in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Emma” the musical.
Liz Lauren

The Emma/Knightley relationship doesn’t evolve as much as it undergoes an abrupt 11th-hour, presto-chango transformation. To Standley’s credit, Mr. Knightley’s epiphany (“Emma”) is wonderfully emotive.

In between the leads’ witty repartee, we meet the lovely and talented Jane Fairfax (Erica Stephan), whom Emma treats with mean-girl pettiness. “The Recital,” wherein Jane and Emma compete via piano forte, is a comic high point.

Emma’s pet project is Harriet Smith (Ephie Aardema), an insecure, mousy woman who is deeply in love with the farmer Robert Martin (Ian Geers, who makes Robert’s taciturn vulnerability a testimony to the heartbreak and hope that true love can engender). Emma puts the kibosh on the Robert/Harriet romance right quick. As she schools Harriet, manual labor involving manure is an unspeakably inappropriate way for any husband of Harriet’s to make a living.

Despite Emma’s overbearing machinations, Harriet persists in being in love with Robert. Aardema makes the longing palpable. In another world and another medium, Harriet’s lovelorn ballad “Mr. Robert Martin” would take the form of a Trapper Keeper, slavishly covered with “Mrs. Robert Martin” doodles but with hearts over the all the lowercase i’s. It’s completely relatable.

Emma’s circle also includes Mr. Elton (a comically insufferable Dennis William Grimes), who reacts to romantic rejection as if he’s been informed the sun rises in the west. Grimes makes it quite clear that, for Mr. Elton, a woman who would turn down his proposal of marriage is as ridiculous as a fish on a bicycle.

Bri Sudia’s Mrs. Elton is a small supporting role, but Sudia’s thespiatic superpower — the ability to stop a show without interrupting its flow — makes the august Mrs. Elton the most memorable persona in the group.

Gaines fills the stage with luxuriance. Scott Davis’ set design has chandeliers to rival the Drury Lane lobby. The cast is framed by acres of diaphanous drapery with golden, supersized tassels that could be rented out as Cousin Itt costumes. Mariann Verheyen’s elaborately detailed period costumes are sumptuous. Donald Holder’s lights bathe the cast in a golden glow.

Jane Lanier’s choreography makes “Waltz” shimmer with romance. Conductor Kory Danielson’s five-piece orchestra sets mood and tone with more skill and subtlety than much of the verbiage.

Austen has been adapted and rebooted for decades. Sometimes, it works, as in the 1995 classic “Clueless,” where you could see the heart and the kindness under Emma’s attempts to play god — or at least Cupid — in the lives of lesser beings.

In “Emma” the musical, that rich heart is missing. Amid all the glittery surfaces, Austen’s “Emma” ends up getting lost in translation. Chicago Shakes misses by a wide mile and doesn’t make going out of your way to meet it worth the effort.

Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.