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A CurtainUp Review
Ernest in Love
By Elyse Sommer
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."
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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