Singing Wilde

Countless musicals open on and off Broadway each year, and while a few make lasting impressions, others play out small respectable runs and live on only in the memories of the audiences who embraced them. Of course, there are often original-cast recordings to fall back on, but the ambitious company Musicals Tonight! goes even further, producing simple yet faithful revivals of long-forgotten musicals. Its latest foray, Ernest in Love—an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest that ran for 111 performances at the Cherry Lane Theater in 1960—is a lively and entertaining romp of falsified identity and misdirected love. Briskly directed by Thomas Mills, this production delivers a handful of marvelous performances—it's also an intriguing study of how musicalization can both enhance and weaken an exemplary play.

Set in and around London in 1895, the story centers on two young bachelors, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, who invent names (and sometimes friends and family members) to allow them to carry on their romantic adventures in and out of town. Jack is smitten with Algernon's cousin Gwendolen, who claims to love him because she believes his name is Ernest; her mother Lady Bracknell blocks the way with questions about his cloudy parentage (as a baby, Jack was discovered in a handbag). Algernon becomes attached to Cecily, Jack's young ward, who is also convinced that she loves a man named Ernest.

Wilde deftly spins the plot with tart and delightfully smart language. Anne Croswell's book and lyrics follow Wilde's script quite faithfully, and Lee Pockriss's jaunty, lyrical music mirrors the operetta-influenced style of the late 19th century.

The songs that come off best bring out the larger-than-life qualities of Wilde's delicious characters. When Lady Bracknell scolds Jack about his dubious upbringing, she attacks him while clucking a patter song: "A handbag/a handbag/is not a proper mother/not a proper mother/not a proper mother!" With a nod to the gossiping ladies in The Music Man, Croswell and Pockriss heighten the hyperbolic drama of this overbearing mother while endearing her to the audience through song.

They also succeed with "My Very First Impression," a caustic, delightful duet for Gwendolen and Cecily's first meeting, in which they express mutual undying devotion until they realize they are both (ostensibly) in love with the same man. Here, the songwriters deploy Wilde's satire at its finest, exposing the duplicity and vanity that lie just behind the facade of good manners.

Ernest in Love also rewards its supporting characters (who are rather neglected in the play) with meaty material, and Cecily's tutor Miss Prism and Dr. Chausuble enjoy a sprightly intellectual flirtation in "Metaphorically Speaking." Still lower on the social ladder, the servants Effie and Lane sing the spirited "You Can't Make Love," in which they celebrate their freedom to enjoy conjugal bliss while criticizing the more corseted romantic choreography of the wealthy.

It's only when the writers bow to the most blatant—and limiting—conventions of musical theater that Wilde himself might have sneered. An early—and overlong—duet between Jack and Gwendolen finds them both obsessing about what to wear for what they both assume will be the moment of their engagement. As he agonizes about his cravat, she worries about her hat (obviously, the rhymes are begging for song), but here the extended melodies rob the language of its wit. Wilde's adroit language requires one's complete attention, but in many of the musical passages, one can drift a bit. The cheesy "everybody sing" finale also feels distinctly un-Wildean, but perhaps appropriately musical theater-ized.

The cast rises to the occasion to portray even the silliest moments with, well, earnest dedication. As the sparring and swooning Gwendolen and Cecily, Lauren Molina and Melissa Bohon present razor-sharp and exquisite character studies. Molina finds remarkably fresh readings of some of Gwendolen's most famous lines—her reactions to the subject of Jack's name are especially engaging. Her performance is precise and delicate throughout, and she is matched by the sharp comic timing of Bohon, who makes a delightfully buoyant and winsome Cecily.

Blake Hackler is charming as the straight-laced Jack, and Deborah Jean Templin winningly pours forth Lady Bracknell's dour barbs and sour expressions. Only Nick Dalton misses the mark as Algernon; he's appropriately peevish, but his overt narcissism makes Algy appear less lovably rakish than awkwardly lecherous.

In this spare production, the actors hold scripts to remind us that this is not a fully staged revival, but they certainly aren't fully dependent on them. Colorful placards and simple set pieces announce scene changes, and the costumes are striking, if not lavish.

Musicals Tonight! is an invaluable gift for dedicated musical theater enthusiasts. Like taking a real-time, live-action record off the shelf, Ernest in Love is a glance back at the musical landscape of 1960, a year in which, producer Mel Miller reminds us, The Sound of Music debuted on Broadway and The Fantasticks began its epic Off-Broadway run. The actress who played Gwendolen in the original production of Ernest in Love was in the audience the night I attended—yet another reminder of the powerful connection between musicals past and present.

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