Twin City Emma2

Jordyn Warhover of Urbana sings during rehearsal Wednesday, June 19, 2019, for the Twin City Theatre Company's 'Stars of Tomorrow' production of the musical 'Emma,' based on the Jane Austen novel, at the SoDo Theatre in Champaign.

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“Empowerment” is the current cry heard in political speeches and in educational circles. Women should have it!

In Jane Austen’s novel, “Emma” (set in England in the 1810s), the heroine is already empowered — to the max. She has beauty, money, status, an adoring father and an indulgent female tutor. She wants to use her power to help her deserving, less-fortunate friend.

So why then did Austen describe her as “a heroine whom no one but myself will like”? She tries, as Sheryl Sandberg might say, to “lean in.”

Several films have shown Emma Woodhouse in her upper-class, 19th-century rural gentry. Gwyneth Paltrow in 1995 is the best known. In 1996, “Clueless,” starring Alicia Silverstone, puts Emma into Beverly Hills High and shows how timeless an empowered teenager can be.

Now, we have a further updating at Highbury High Boarding School in Eric Price’s 2015 version. It puts whipped cream on the delicious cake with the addition of pop music, mostly familiar songs from the likes of Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, Katy Perry and various girl groups. Brisk dancing choreographed by Michael Ryan for the cast of 15 fills the small stage of the So Do (SOuth of DOwntown) Theatre.

The backdrop of vogue teen language is refreshingly without vulgarity. Typical rhythm is established with phrases such as “Are you serious?” or “totally awesome” or “uhhh…oh.” Emma gives a breezy statement of her human-touch matchmaking talent: “You don’t want your future made up by an algorithm based on your favorite color fuchsia!”

When teens play teens, the flow of dance and repartee is a natural connection to the interspersed songs done here under the musical direction of Joanna Carlson. Electronic music accompanies.

“Chapel of Love” is a sprightly lead-off by the ensemble at the wedding of two teachers Emma thinks she has engineered. The following songs are all engaging as they lead to Emma’s realization via Jeff Knightley, “You hear what you want to hear, Emma!”

Sammi Schmidt gives powerful voice and good stage presence to Emma’s songs. She knows how to modulate. She has a full range of pouts, plaintive wails, sweet persuasions and roars. Her “Eye of the Tiger” leads to “Turn the Beat Around,” a harmonized trio with Emma Huart as Jane Fairfax and Jordan Warhover as Harriet Smith. Warhover’s solo “Brave” spotlights her sure, clear voice before she is joined by others.

Mitchell Whitlock conveys a manly, kind Mr. Knightley. Carson Smith as Martin, the “dishwasher/bus boy,” shows the sweetness that immediately wins Harriet’s affection. Caden Hanlon affects a grunge rocker as Frankie Churchill, who really cares for no one but himself. In the dress rehearsal I saw, Veronica Bechtel convincingly makes the full-of-himself Philip Elton despicable as he runs for student council president.

All members of the ensemble show energy in their ability to dance and sing in unity.

But three impressed me for outstanding articulation, precision and vivid stage enjoyment: Ivy Wright (also Miss Taylor), Kate Roth and Genna Roth (also Mrs. Bates, the Highbury principal).

It’s nice to see a high school drama director like Chandler Dalton (from St. Joseph-Ogden) able to include talent from a wider area range. With such results, she will surely continue.

Twin City Theatre Company has built a reputation for excellence. Recently, “On the Exhale,” “Lost in Yonkers” and “Mountaintop” jump to my mind. Now, in a quick-moving 90 minutes, the teen actors add another dimension. They validate the name’s promise: Stars of Tomorrow.

Rosemary Laughlin is a writer and retired English teacher from University Laboratory High School.