This charming and all but forgotten show forces Oscar Wilde's upper-class twits to sing for their supper.
Reviewed by Ellen Wernecke
Oscar Wilde has been back in vogue recently -- that is, if he was ever out. His most famous play "The Importance of Being Earnest" has of late not only gotten the Merchant-and-Ivory-style Hollywood treatment (with Colin Firth and Rupert Everett playing the bachelor friends who both claim the titular name), but also an updated teen version titled "Would I Lie To You?" (The answer, in the name of the play's protagonists, is obviously yes, but more on that later.) Musicals Tonight! has rescued "Ernest in Love," the 1960 Broadway musical based on Wilde's play about intentionally mistaken identities and the virtues of lying in polite society.
Algernon (Nick Dalton) and Jack (Blake Hackler) are two chummy bachelors living outside their means in London at the turn of the century. But Jack has a secret: He's got a young ward at home, for whose sake he goes by the name Ernest while in town to maintain the appearance of a morally worthy guardian, telling the folks he's looking after a wayward brother. Algy, on the other hand, pretends to visit an imaginary invalid called Bunbury when he wants to escape the clutches of his aunt Augusta Bracknell (Deborah Jean Templin). When Jack proposes to Algy's cousin Gwendolen (Lauren Molina), Lady Bracknell forbids the marriage after she finds out Jack is an orphan who was found in a train station. Heartbroken, Jack flees to his country house -- only to find Algernon posing as his wayward brother and wooing his ward.
Packed with classic bon mots like "Ignorance is like a delicate fruit -- touch it, and the bloom is gone" and "I never travel without my diary -- one should always have something sensational to read on the train," "The Importance of Being Earnest" can't help bringing out the laughs even with the most sentimental score, so the duets with which "Ernest in Love" is peppered come out silly, not sappy. There are several important differences between the musical and the Wilde play, most importantly the avenue the songs lend to minor characters in the original material. The play opens not with Algernon and Jack congratulating each other, but on their valets toasting their masters ironically in "Come Raise Your Cup." Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble, the weedy schoolmarm and uptight priest, get their own love ballad in "Metaphorically Speaking," and the first encounter between Cecily and Gwendolen -- in which they go from best of friends to barely speaking -- is entirely contained in "My Very First Impression." But Wilde himself would have approved of Lady Bracknell's indignant "A Handbag Is Not A Proper Mother" with Jack on unwilling harmony.
Like the play, the musical basically lives or dies on the chemistry between Algernon and Jack more than that with their respective matches. Hackler's nervous wreck and Dalton's careless rake are well matched, and it's easy to believe by the end that -- spoiler alert -- they are actually brothers after all. In the second act's "The Muffin Song," Jack may express outrage at Algy's ability to calmly eat muffins while Gwendolen and Cecily remain convinced of their treachery, but what he's really saying is, How are we going to get out of this? It's like a buddy movie, with cravats. (Speaking of, this is a staged concert version; the costumes and choreography are above par, but the scripts are out for the duration.) Molina brings a prissy perfection to the part of Gwendolen, while Melissa Bohon's Cecily lends a mischievous sparkle to Cecily, the sheltered girl who secretly wants to go bad. Maybe "Ernest in Love" should have survived, maybe not, but the cast of this revival hits nearly all its laugh lines.
"Ernest in Love"
Musicals Tonight!, McGinn-Cazale Theatre
Broadway and 76th St. (elevator to 3rd floor, walk to 4th)
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