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A CurtainUp Review
Ernest in Love

A handbag is not a proper mother.— Lady Bracknell's much quoted put-down of Jack Worthing's humble beginnings, a much reprised line and song title in Ernest In Love.
Ernest in Love
Beth Fowler as Lady Bracknell
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Is the idea of musicalizing the Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest a case of inspired synergy or enormous chutzpah? Considering that Wilde's verbal wit has a natural musical rhythm of its own, it indeed takes chutzpah to have Wilde's Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, their lady loves and the larger than life gorgon Lady Bracknell sing as well as speak. It's quite a challenge to embellish a play considered to need no enhancement with music and have the adaptation remain true to the tangled tale of two young Victorian aristocrats whose use of double identities to escape social obligations complicate their respective romances?

Ernest In Love, the 1960 musical adaptation of Wilde's last, best and most revived play by Anne Croswell and Lee Pockris earned enough critical praise to extend its original run at the Gramercy Arts Theater at the Cherry Lane. Yet, the love stirred up by this chamber musical turned out to be a 111-performance flirtation that seeded a cast album but has otherwise gathered dust in that vast attic of neglected musicals.

Now the Irish Rep Theater, that invaluable source for all things Irish, has resurrected Ernest In Love, helmed by the company's artistic director Charlotte Moore and featuring a cast with the acting and vocal chops to bring out its strengths. If I had to limit this review to a single adjective, it would be "charming." Despite a cast that is considered large in these cash-strapped times, not the least of the show's claim to charm is that it never loses its sense of being a chamber musical. Even when the full company is on stage, as they are at the beginning and end, the musical numbers are more concert-like and sprightly than Broadwayesque showy.

Ms. Moore has enlisted one of the Irish Rep's favorite designers, James Morgan, to create scenery that imbues the entire front section of the theater of Victorian drawing room aura, with paintings of fans and other apt images even covering that problematic beam right on the tiny stage. Morgan's minimal scenery includes two flexible free-standing doors and a few items of furniture which Morre has the actors dance on and off stage.

Noah Racey and Ian Holcomb, this production's duplicitous Jack and Algernon, personify charm. Racey, who's an outstanding dancer and choreographer, manages to add a touch of Fred Astaire to Jack and the tall, dark and handsome Holcomb amusingly and quite shamelessly channels the flamboyant Wilde, especially when wearing a wonderful peacock-colored robe in the scenes set in his flat. (Linda Fisher's costumes for everyone deserve a hand).

Annika Boras as Gwendolen and Katie Fabel as Cecily bring rich voices to Jack and Algy's lady loves. Of course, the one character who's more scary than charming is Gwendolen's formidable mother and Algy's aunt, Lady Bracknell. As played by Beth Fowler she's also this little show's most wildly Wildean character. Her patter song, "A Handbag is Not a Proper Mother," sung first as a duet with Jack and reprised as a quintet, is the title most closely linked to one of the play's cornucopia of famous bon mots. (In case you've never seen the original play Jack was a foundling, left as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station and adopted and named by a wealthy man which hardly satisfies Lady Bracknell's requirements for a son-in-law of suitable parentage, whether named Jack or Ernest, a name preferred by both Gwendolen and Cecily. The mystery of Jack's true parentage is ultimately revealed during a meeting between Cecily's governess, Miss Prism and Lady Bracknell).

While the lyrics of the handbag song as well as the show's other 15 dittiess are catchy and cleverly tap into the story, they're hardly the stuff of a truly great and memorable musical. Ms. Moore's expert direction, savvy casting and staging notwithstanding, this revival is pleasantly enjoyable but it's also likely to lay to rest any claims that Ernest In Love is a vastly underappreciated musical that should have been a long-running, much produced hit. Croswell and Pockriss didn't really improve Wilde's play. However, credit them with being true to the cleverly concocted plot and priceless quips, their only diddling with the original being a somewhat unnecessary extra bit of musical business for the servants Effie (Kerry Conte) and Lane (Brad Bradley).

Discounting the fact that none of the songs are as likely to pass the stick-to-the-ear hummer test like Pockriss's "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini," the libretto does feature numerous enjoyable interludes. Highlight include two delicious duets by Algernon and Jack: "Mr. Bunbury" duet (Bunbury being the sick friend Algernon invented to get out of spending time with his opinionated aunt is lyrically praised as "being a lark/ especially after dark") and "The Muffin Song" ("You can like or lump it/ but a bit of crumpet/ and a spot of tea/ will free your tension"). There's also "My Very First Impression" which pairs Gwendolen and Cecily, and for Miss Prism (Kristin Griffin) and Rev. Chasuble (Peter Maloney), the two minor characters who play a major role in resolving the many plot complications, there's "Metaphorically Speaking."

Though the four-piece string dominated orchestra brings out the best in the music and the songs never upstage or stray from their inspirational source, they do often seem to stop the show — explaining and elaborating rather than really moving things forward. Still, Croswell and Pockriss were far more successful in musicalizing The Importance of Being Earnest than Noel Coward was in his attempt to do the same thing for Lady Windemere's Fan as After the Ball. That adaptation was also staged at the Irish Rep (review) but was a rare misfire for this company because it lacked a cast of seasoned singers. Fortunately this is not the case with this musically adept cast.

While I can't in all earnest agree with anyone who thinks Ernest In Love is an unappreciated musical masterpiece, this Irish Rep revival makes the most of its modest charms. And as someone sufficiently enamored with metaphors to edit a dictionary devoted to that poetic trope, how can I fail to be charmed by a musical that includes a song in which a lover (Algy in "Lost") declares his love with "For when I dare to think of you, all my metaphors get mixed/when I dare to look at you/ I stand silently transfixed."

Ernest in Love adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest
> Book and lyrics by Anne Croswell
Music by Lee Pockriss
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Cast: Annika Boras (Gwendolen Fairfax), Brad Bradley (Merriman/Lane), Kerry Conte (Alice/Effie), Katie Fabel (Cecily Cardew), Beth Fowler (Lady Augusta Bracknell), Kristin Griffith (Miss Prism), Ian Holcomb (Algernon Moncrieff), Peter Maloney (Dr. Chasuble), Noah Racey (Jack Worthing)
Musical Direction: Mark Hartman
Choreography: Barry McNabb
Nusicians: Mark Hartman-Conductor/keyboard; Karen Lindquist-harp; Melanie Mason=cello; Vonnie Quinn-violin. Scenic design: James Morgan
Costumes: , Linda Fisher
Lighting: d Brian Nason
Wig and hair design: Robert-Charles Valance
Prop master: Rich Murray
Dialect coach: Sephen Gabis
Stage Manager: Christine Lemme
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, includes one intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre 132 West 22nd Street 212-727-2737
From: 12/12/09; opening 12/20/09; closing 2/14/10
Wed-Sat 8pm; Wed, Sat and Sun 3pm
Tickets $65 and $55 Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 12/18 press preview
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • How Do You Find the Words? / Jack
  • The Hat /Gwendolen and Alice
  • Mr. Bunbury /Algy and Jack
  • Perfection / Kacl amd Gwendolen
  • A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother /Lady Brancknell and Jack
  • Mr Bunbury (Reprise)/Algy and Lane
  • Wicked Man / Cecily
  • Metaphorically Speaking /Miss Prism and Chausible
  • Wicked Man (Reprise)/ Algy
Act Two
  • You Can't Make Love /Effie and Lane
  • Lost /Algy an Cecily
  • My Very First Impression /Gwendolen and Cecily
  • The Muffin Song / Jack and Algy
  • Couples Waltz/Gwendolen, Cecily, Algy and Jack
  • A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother (Reprise)/Lady Bracknell, Algy, Cecily, Jack and Gwendolyn
  • The Muffi Song (Reprise/ Jack, Gwendolyn, Cecily and Algy
  • Finale (Ernest In Love) /Fullcompany
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