With Autumn de Wilde’s new film version of Jane Austen’s Emma being released next week (the seventh time it’s been adapted for film or TV, not counting Amy Heckerling’s Clueless), it seems propitious that Chicago Shakespeare has Paul Gordon’s musical adaptation currently on the boards. I missed Gordon’s world-premiere musical of Sense and Sensibility on Navy Pier in 2015. But with Emma, Gordon and director Barbara Gaines create a world that, while charming, doesn’t really do much to expand the dramatic universe of Highwood, the bucolic country estate where self-involved Emma (Lora Lee Gayer) plots the romantic futures of others—with unforeseen results.
Part of the problem is that the songs and narration, while tidy and efficient at streamlining the story, lack deeper resonance. There’s a distinct sense that we’re being steered along, rather as if we’re on a Regency-era reenactment, chuckling at the social faux pas unleashed by Emma’s meddling. But the actual stakes here feel too low. The social distinctions among Emma, the self-assured poor-but-clever Jane Fairfax (Erica Stephan), and “natural child” Harriet Smith (Ephie Aardema)—an orphan of uncertain parentage and limited worldly awareness—are glossed over, despite the fact that marriage means something quite different to all of them.
Emma’s conscience and foil, Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley), sings the title song with emotion and fire. But as the spark to this flame, Gayer remains too much on the surface. Strong supporting comic turns from Bri Sudia’s affected Mrs. Elton (an Austenian take on Moira from Schitt’s Creek) and Larry Yando’s hypochrondriacal Mr. Woodhouse deserve note, and it all looks and sounds quite handsome. But it never makes the case for why we need to hear this story told in song. v