I’ll never forget the first time I heard Ernest in Love, the musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The cast album CD had just been released by DRG in 2003, and I was familiar with the play from high school and college readings so I was curious to see how it fared on disc. Aside from its overture and two songs, most of it didn’t stick and I didn’t listen to the recording again for some time.
However, once word came that the Irish Repertory Theatre was going to revive the obscurity, I made it a goal to head down to catch a performance. As my Irish luck would have it, I received an invitation from the group itself to cover it. (Add to it, Charlotte Moore, director of the production and Artistic Director of the organization handed me my tickets!) I admit I was excited too because I was bringing Ms. Roxie along with me, Anglophile, Earnest enthusiast and all-around musical theatre fan.
The musical, written by Lee Pockriss and Anne Croswell, was originally an hour long TV musical called Who’s Earnest? which aired on the US Steel Hour in 1957. The expanded version of the show opened off-Broadway in 1960 to positive reviews but closed after 103 performances. (In contrast, The Fantasticks opened off-Broadway the night before… just saying). An original cast album was made, and the show has been available for licensing so it hasn’t fallen completely off the radar.
The major problem with Ernest in Love is that it’s a completely unnecessary musical. There are some songs which are quite good, and others which are quite dull. More importantly, none of the songs has anything to add to one of the most important comic plays of the last hundreds years or so. Pockriss came from the world of pop music with one hit song “Catch a Falling Star” and Croswell was in advertising jingles. Their work is admirable, if nothing that really stands out. The duo would later reunite for the 1963 musical Tovarich (which I admit, I listen to more than Ernest) which won Vivien Leigh a Tony award, but whose offstage drama was more memorable than the show itself.
The Irish Rep is presenting a most charming, elegant production of the show (now playing through February 14) with a cast headlined by Tony nominee Beth Fowler as the imperious Lady Bracknell. Things got off to a it of a shaky start with a sung overture a la Night Music featuring some excessive “swayography,” but once the actual play was up and running, things settled in rather nicely for a warm, enjoyable evening.
Song-and-dance man Noah Racey was a little out of place as Jack Worthing, but managed to overcome his stiffness in the second act. Ian Holcomb is appropriately infuriating as the foppish Algernon Montcrief, who both resembles and channels Wilde himself in his flamboyantly arch characterization. Fowler’s arch Lady Bracknell (always the crowdpleaser) uses the character’s stoicism to great comic effect, and soars with a near showstopping rendition of “A Handbag is Not a Proper Mother” (and yes, she had an excellent delivery of “A handbag?”). Annika Boras was absolute perfection as Gwendolyn; while Katie Fabel scored major laughs as Cecily, though her singing voice didn’t seem quite up to the demands of her major song (“A Wicked Man”).
Moore’s direction is strong, making great use of the venue. I have never been inside the Irish Repertory Theatre before, but it’s a beautiful space perfect for chamber musicals, much like this one. In a larger space, the show couldn’t and mostly likely wouldn’t work as well as it does here. The sets and costumes are charming, even if Algernon’s robe is a trifle too Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for a period musical. The orchestration consisting of piano, harp and string sits off stage right, is perfection; complementing both the material onstage as well as the performance space.
There aren’t many folks out there clamoring for a production of Ernest in Love, so it’s fortuitous that the Irish Rep has given theatre fans (especially cult musical enthusiasts like myself) the opportunity to see a full-scale production. However, don’t be surprised if you find yourself anticipating the book scenes during the musical numbers – the best of the evening still belongs to Mr. Wilde.