Before you actually see it, it’s difficult to imagine “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Oscar Wilde’s acknowledged masterpiece, performed as a musical.
The trouble is that as a play it’s already so musical to begin with. In a script that’s brimming with artifice and self-awareness (and with the sound of a world class Irish author delighting himself with his mastery of English) adding songs to the mix only threatens to tilt the whole thing over into self-parody.
But “Ernest in Love,” Anne Croswell and Lee Pockriss’ often performed 1959 musical of Wilde’s work now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York, is a jaunty little romp that references Gilbert and Sullivan, Noel Coward and Wilde himself in a show that clips along at a pace that can only be described as giddy.
If you’re a fan of Wilde you’ll find plenty to admire here, and if you’re not a fan this relentlessly cheerful show will just remind why you’re not. In either case you’ll be at the Irish Rep, which means you’ll be among the most consistently interesting and skilled theater makers in the city.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is all about masks, the ones that conceal and the ones that reveal. As a homosexual at the height of the Victorian era, few people have worn a mask as effectively as Oscar Wilde.
His signature play flirts with every major social taboo of his era –
illegitimacy, adultery, fraud, theft, coded homosexuality and even anarchy, and all the while he makes the people who would most condemn him applaud. That in itself is a major achievement.
People who still think Wilde’s comedy is trivial do not understand its bite. In America he’s often misprized still because his challenge is never explicit.
Unfortunately the book and lyrics of “Ernest In Love” tend to reflect the play’s glittering surface, missing all the opportunities that lie beneath. A handbag may not be a proper mother, as the most compelling song in this show reminds us, but it would have done the writer no harm to explore some of the darker implications of Wilde’s wit.
As Lady Bracknell, the litmus role that decides the acidity of the production, Tony nominee Beth Fowler alternates between perfect pitch and cool detachment. One moment this gifted performer is firing on all cylinders, and the next she almost looks vexed by the lines Wilde has written.
For this reviewer the show comes most to life in the moments when the performers put down the book and pick up the script. After all, Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are the most delightful comic duo to have appeared on a London stage since Shakespeare wrote “As You Like It.”
In the roles Katie Fabel and Annika Boras win the night’s biggest belly laughs as the battling rivals who unexpectedly call a ceasefire and then forge an alliance against the men they love.
Ian Holcomb’s turn as Algernon Moncrieff is, it has to be said, mostly louche to the point of parody. He preens and pouts in a gorgeous smoking jacket, but he rarely approaches the sulphurousness of the role as written.
That leaves Noah Racey as John Worthing to do some heavy lifting, which he manages consistently throughout the night. Peter Maloney is terrific as the flirtatious Dr. Chasuble, and Kristin Griffith compliments him ably as a deeply repressed Miss Prism.
The set, which is designed by James Morgan, makes imaginative use of the Irish Rep’s stage, opening up the space remarkably. Director Charlotte Moore does very well with a musical that’s as a light as a soufflé and as easy to overcook.
That it performs as well as it does is a tribute to her resolve and to the chorography of Barry McNabb, who puts the cast through their paces in scene after scene.
In some respects Wilde’s moral universe, for all its paradox and subtlety, was often the most conventional thing about him. He believed in love, wholly and completely; he actually suffered and died for it.
And while this is hardly the stuff of a holiday musical, this work might have been so much richer if the writer had found a moment to acknowledge it.
“Ernest in Love” is now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York. For tickets call 212-727-2737.