Theater review: Book-It's production of "Emma" is well-cast, and its story well-condensed, writes Misha Berson.

Share story

Theater review |

In her novel “Emma,” Jane Austen describes the title character as “handsome, clever and rich … with very little to distress or vex her.”

And therein lies the rub, and one tenet of Austen’s sparkling satire: for a lady bountiful with no troubles of your own, it’s far too easy to create problems for others.

“Emma” charts the follies and moral maturation of its charmed, but patronizing, young protagonist. And Book-It Repertory Theatre’s new stage version of the book has condensed and cast her story wisely and well.

As Emma, Sylvie Davidson is a smart, pretty slip of a thing who means no harm. But she’s an awful buttinski. Seattle newcomer Dylan Chalfy cuts a fine figure as the confidante and (self-appointed) ethics adviser who takes more than a brotherly interest in Emma.

The Book-It folks are practiced hands at remaking Austen stories into diverting stage works. (They’ve also deftly adapted “Pride and Prejudice” and “Persuasion.”)

“Emma,” faithfully scripted by Rachel Atkins, is a light Austen romance — more of a bagatelle, with less action but lots of mating.

Emma first aims to find a spouse for her less fortunate, socially inept friend Harriet (Ashley Marshall). She advises the girl to ditch a man she loves and set her cap on the more upscale Mr. Elton (one of Austen’s smarmy parsons, well-etched by John Bianchi).

The results are disastrous, and Emma’s fleeting plan to marry herself off to dashing Frank Churchill (Daniel Brockley) also comes to naught.

Also on hand are Emma’s doddering, beloved father (Brian Thompson, a whiz at this sort of role), the penniless but envied Jane Fairfax (Nicole Fierstein) and Elton’s snooty, obnoxious new wife, played with broad, hilarious strokes by Emily Grogan.

Chalfy (who has many stage and screen credits) also impresses, and his rapport with Davidson feels genuine.

British director Marcus Goodwin (who also mounted “Pride and Prejudice” for Book-It), stages “Emma” with the audience seated on two opposite sides. That makes for a few audibility and sightline problems.

Deane Middleton’s early-19th-century costumes, including Emma’s empire-waisted frocks, look great.

And scenic designer Andrea Bush provides a striking floor mural and does wonders with descending white ribbons and chandeliers.

Now and then, all the gossiping on gilded chairs and at picnics gets a bit static. But the pace quickly picks up, especially in ball scenes choreographed by Laura Ferri.

As every Austen fan knows, a great deal transpires at balls, when these prim social butterflies are dancing and romancing.