Emma comes to life in a new musical at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Emma comes to life in a new musical at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Emma Woodhouse (Lora Lee Gayer, at right) meets her match in Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Emma. Photo: Liz Lauren

Artistic Director Barbara Gaines stages a new musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel 

Jane Austen (1775–1817) did not anticipate that readers would like Emma Woodhouse, the heroine in her 1816 novel “Emma,” saying “I do not expect readers to like the protagonist of Emma. I’m going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”

Spoiled, headstrong, self-satisfied, privileged and pampered, Austen’s imperfect heroine Emma Woodhouse meddles where she does not belong indulging in her pastime of misguided matchmaking–thinking she knows what’s best for others yet not aware of her own passions.

Throughout the years, however, “Emma” that takes place in the fictional village of Highbury and the surrounding estates and involves the relationships between several families in a country village, has become beloved my many.

The novel has been retold in various guises including, the current production of “Emma” the musical at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST).

In plotting out the music for “Emma,” Chicago Shakespeare Theater composer and lyricist Paul Gordon first asked himself, “Do these character’s sing?”

It turns out that, yes they do sing.

Actually they sing quite well with the help of Gordon’s original 2006 score and the beautiful voices of cast members including a heartfelt rendition of “Emma” by Brad Standley (Mr. Knightly).

Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren Party guests revel at a ball in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Emma

Gordon created 30 musical numbers and reprises for the CST production adding a new dimension to the 200+ year old novel. 

Of Emma, Gordon shared, “There is a lyricism to the way Jane Austen writes—great melodies within the soul of the piece. The poetic language of the novel makes for a wonderful foundation of a musical and the music triggers your emotions in a profound way.”

The multi-talented composer, lyricist, and book writer, Gordon has been inspired by classic texts to create musicals including the Broadway musical Jane Eyre, which he co-wrote, was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score, and Chicago Shakespeare’s world premiere of Sense and Sensibility garnered the Jeff Award for Best New Musical.

The CST adaptation of “Emma,” cast and directed by Barbara Gaines, stars Lora Lee Gayer as Emma Woodhouse who’s beautiful voice and comedic timing capture the essence of the name character. Emma’s special friend Mr. Knightley, played by Brad Standley is the perfect contrast and voice of reason to Emma’s impulsive nature.

Photo: Liz Lauren

Photo: Liz Lauren

Larry Yando, a favorite at CST, is spot-on as Mr, Woodhouse, Emma’s father, the lovable curmudgeon–that reminds Emma over and over how he doesn’t like things to change.

Photo credit: Liz Lauren

Photo credit: Liz Lauren Harriet Smith (Ephie Aardema) joyfully dances with Mr. Knightley (Brad Standley) as the ball guests look on in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Emma

Ephie Aardema, Emma’s impressionable young protégé, Harriet Smith, is a delight and the perfect compliment to the meddling Emma.

Devin DeSantis portrays Frank Churchill, one of Emma’s suitors. Erica Stephan is the charming and accomplished Jane Fairfax, who must find her way in the world without a fortune of her own.

The Emma company also includes Michael Milligan and Kelli Harrington as Mr. and Mrs. Weston, and Dennis William Grimes and Bri Sudia as Mr. and Mrs. Elton. Rounding out the cast are Ian Geers (Mr. Robert Martin), Emily Goldberg (Ensemble), Marya Grandy (Miss Bates), and Brandy Cheyenne Miller (Elizabeth Martin).

Joining Gaines on the “Emma” creative team is Music Director Roberta Duchak—a two-time Jeff Award-winner who returns to Chicago Shakespeare after collaborating on the Theater’s hit North American Premiere musical SIX and its subsequent transfer productions—as well as Choreographer Jane Lanier, Dialect Coach Kate DeVore, Assistant Director Erin Kraft, and Assistant Music Director Kory Danielson.

The creative team also includes Scenic Designer Scott Davis, Costume Designer Mariann Verheyen, Lighting Designer Donald Holder, Associate Lighting Designer Rachel Levy, Sound Designer Chad Parsley, and Wig and Make-up Designer Richard Jarvie. 

Rating: 3 stars
Where: Chicago Shakespeare’s Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier
When: January 28–March 15, 2020
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission
Tickets: $49-$90 at 312-595-5600 or www.chicagoshakes.com/emma

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