It's a good thing that American Idol's snarky Simon Cowell wasn't around in pre-Victorian England. His reputed engagement to his show's makeup gal would have been severely frowned upon. You see, in plays such as Jane Austen's Emma, now at the Cleveland Play House, it's a no-no to marry too far above or below your "class."
But for the rest of us commoners here in the colonies, the classic tale Austen spins about the precocious and romantically intrusive Emma Woodhouse is always a pleasure to revisit. Adapting it for the stage, however, brings a couple of challenges: One, how to compress this expansive story of multiple matchmaking and love affairs into one compact theatrical event. And two, how to decide what liberties can be taken with characters who are so well known and beloved.
Under the direction of Peter Amster, this production gets many things absolutely right. But there are a couple off-center notes in performances that, while not capsizing Austen's love boat, cause a few rocky moments.
CPH artistic director Michael Bloom's adaptation necessarily drops much of the connective tissue of Austen's novel, due to time constraints. And that can be confusing for those new to the material. But he manages to retain the wit and charm for which Emma is known.
In the first minute or so, Emma gives herself credit for successfully matching her governess Miss Taylor and a village widower, Mr. Weston — similar to the way a rooster prides himself on causing the sun to rise with his cock-a-doodle-doo. She then scouts out more matrimonial pairings, unconcerned about her own marriage prospects, thanks to her comfortable financial status and the fact that she can't imagine a man to be her peer.
As headstrong yet irresistible Emma, Sarah Nealis has a daunting task, since she will inevitably be compared to previous interpretations. While Nealis hits most of the notes correctly, there is a spark missing behind her eyes that would allow us to see her mental machinations as she imposes herself on others' lives. This, after all, is one of the sly pleasures that Austen provides.
Of course, Emma spars with family chum Mr. Knightley over her romantic inter-ferences before the second act swoon. And Mark L. Montgomery makes Knightley's eventual protestation of love genuinely affecting. But early on, his face seems locked in an almost constant distasteful squint, preventing us from viewing a few harbingers of his heart's eventual path.
In supporting roles, Carolyn Faye Kramer is mousy and adorable as Harriet, one of Emma's targets; Patrick Clear is a blissfully befuddled hypochondriac as Mr. Woodhouse; and Lindsay Iuen is a treat as the superficial and flamboyant Mrs. Elton.
The play is performed on a magnificent set, designed by Robert Mark Morgan, featuring a multitude of sliding and dropping panels that continually give different views of a lovely countryside tableau at the rear. Add in excellent pacing and sublime costumes, and this is an Emma that's eminently huggable.