There must be something in the water in the South Bay and Peninsula. TheatreWorks has unveiled a new musical version of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest in Mountain View, not long before San Jose Rep opens another musical adaptation of a great British play of the 1890s written by a renowned Irish wit: A Minister’s Wife, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. While the latter is set in the original period, Being Earnest has been transplanted to the swinging London of the 1960s for some reason, or for no reason at all.
Writer-composer Paul Gordon has a long history with TheatreWorks, all of which so far has been devoted to stage musicals based on novels from 100-odd years ago. After the company staged his Broadway musical Jane Eyre (based on the 1847 Charlotte Bronte novel) in 2003, it had a hit with the 2007 world premiere of Emma (based on Jane Austen’s 1815 classic) and produced Gordon’s version of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs in 2010. None of these were based on plays, however, and all of them retained the original setting.
Nestled inside three purple picture frames, Joe Ragey’s set establishes the new milieu right away, with mod furnishings such as a couch made of gumdrop-like red circular cushions. A video screen and rolling parts effectively move the action from the city to the country, and Fumiko Bielefeldt revives some fetching ’60s fashions, especially for the ladies. If the story doesn’t fare quite as well in Robert Kelley’s lively production, that’s partly because neither turning the play into a musical nor transplanting it into the 1960s turns out to be a good idea.
If you don’t know the original play, here’s a quick refresher. Depending on how you look at it, there are either two Earnests in The Importance of Being Earnest or no Earnests at all. Jack Worthing goes by the name Earnest in London, and at his estate in the country he’s concocted a fictional ne’er-do-well brother named Earnest to account for long absences when he’s supposedly getting his sibling out of trouble. His aristocratic friend Algernon Moncrieff, an actual ne’er-do-well, poses as this brother Earnest as soon as he finds out that Jack (whom he always knew as Earnest) has a pretty young ward hidden away in the country, Cecily. Meanwhile Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, is refusing to let Jack marry her daughter Gwendolen because he was found in a handbag in a train station and doesn’t know his parentage. Complicating matters further, both Gwendolen and Cecily think they’re in love with a man named Earnest and wouldn’t dream of marrying a man by any other name.
Much of the dialogue in Being Earnest is straight out of Wilde’s play, and that’s by far the best part of the show. But a great deal of Wilde’s text has been cut to make room for the songs, and the effect is that there are a few comic bits that are insufficiently set up and just become confusing, such as Algernon eating all the cucumber sandwiches. It’s also just plain strange to hear people talking in 1890s style while dressed in 1960s garb, no less so (and perhaps more so) than modern-dress people speaking Shakespeare.
Euan Morton has an oily smugness about him as Algernon, who’s appropriately roguish but without the winning charm needed to make him the least bit likeable. The effect is as if it’s Blackadder who’s romancing young Cecily (a delightfully vivacious Riley Krull). Jack is also a duplicitous cad, of course, but with illusions of being a true blue sort of fellow. With the ringing voice of a strapping hero in a melodrama, Hayden Tee’s Jack is a pompous cipher, simply reacting to wherever the witty dialogue or bouncy song leads him, and Mindy Lym’s Gwendolen also feels ill-defined but has the assured charisma (and go-go boots) to pull it off. Diana Torres Koss and Brian Herndon make a sweet couple as Cecily’s tutor Miss Prism and the gentle Reverend Chasuble, and Herndon also plays a motley assortment of servants with comical voices.
A seasoned musical comedy actress who’s underutilized in this show, Maureen McVerry is amusingly dotty as Lady Bracknell but not the least bit forbidding or formidable, making it seem absurd that anyone takes her lack of consent to let young lovers marry all that seriously. Lady Bracknell represents such a cutting satire of Victorian-era hypocrisy that she seems terribly out of place in the 1960s, her decrees of what is or isn’t proper coming off as harmless eccentricity.
With a compositional assist from Jay Gruska, Gordon’s songs are clever in their own right, though not as sharp as the dialogue they replace. Typical lyrics: “I’ve always suspected you had some bad in you, and now I find I love the cad in you”; “Will my heart soar, or could you be a bore?” Despite touches such as hints of harpsichord and something resembling girl-group harmony, they don’t sound tied to any particular period. They’re bouncy, even catchy, though sometimes cloying, and when used in place of dialogue (which is often), they make for confusing shifts of mood. Jack may start a song furious at Algy, but by the end of the song they’re the best of friends again and it’s not at all clear what changed the tone aside from the need to end the tune on an up note. A song that’s just cobbled together from various Wildean quips to kick off act two really has no place in the show at all.
At the performance I attended, most of act two was marred by a high-pitched noise that I thought at first was a misguided attempt at crickets or distant wind chimes in Jeff Mockus’s sound design but was more likely some kind of feedback.
Being Earnest is a pleasant enough musical, if disjointed, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the play on which it’s based. Every time it diverges from Wilde for a song or something, it would be better if it didn’t. Just as Jack and Algy can’t possibly live up to the Earnests of their fiancées’ imaginations, Being Earnest makes you wish it were something that it’s not but merely plays at being—The Importance of Being Earnest.
Show #36 of 2013, attended April 7.