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Ernest In Love

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Beth Fowler, Annika Boras, Noah Racey, Katie Fabel, Ian Holcomb, Peter Maloney, and Kristin Griffith.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Musicals directly adapted from inarguably great works of dramatic literature occasionally end up like My Fair Lady. But when they're not total disasters or complete transformations, they're usually a lot more like Ernest in Love. Librettist-lyricist Anne Croswell and composer Lee Pockriss's unbelievably faithful take on the Oscar Wilde's classic The Importance of Being Ernest, which opened Off-Broadway in 1960, flourishes only and entirely when the original play is allowed its fullest voice. The rest of the time, as Charlotte Moore's new production at the Irish Repertory Theatre proves, it's pleasant, but not much more.

Still, if only more musicals had even this much! Wilde's crackling comedy, about two London men whose tendency for adopting new personalities in the country causes major problems when both hit the same house at the same time, is as lively and riotous as ever. Jack (here, Noah Racey) and Algernon (Ian Holcomb) are two fizzingly funny creations, and the antics their alter-egos, respectively Ernest and, uh, Ernest (Algy adopts Jack's alias as his own), inflict on Jack's ward, Cecily (Katie Fabel), and fiancée, Gwendolen (Annika Boras), simply could not be improved upon.

This, of course, is what causes the infelicities that pockmark Ernest in Love. The score, which pays more than glancing tribute to Gilbert-and-Sullivan operetta and Alan Jay Lerner-style patter, is simply not up to the book. Croswell has done little more than cut down Wilde's script, albeit with incredible deftness that dilutes none of the pungent wit or precise plotting, standing in stark tribute to (for example) Lee Hall's reduction of his own film Billy Elliot or Steven Sater's simplified take on Frank Wedekind for Spring Awakening. But every time a song starts, the sparkling temporarily screeches to a halt.

Except for "Lost," a lovely if somewhat incongruous second-act duet for Algy and Cecily, the musical numbers inflate faint mentions from Wilde without expanding or enlightening. Jack fretting about proposing to Gwendolen in the spoke-sung "How Do You Find the Words?", Cecily dreaming of "A Wicked Man," or her governess Miss Prism (Kristin Griffith) and the rector Dr. Chasuble (Peter Maloney) dueling with the saucily taunting "Metaphorically Speaking" are simply extraneous moments. Gwendolen and Cecily's "My Very First Impression," in which tuneful sororal admiration becomes cat-fight hate within seconds, and the small-talk laden "The Muffin Song" come closer to the mark. But most of the time you find yourself hoping the songs will end so the ripe repartee can begin again. Never a good sign for any musical.

It must be noted, however, that Moore has directed and staged (on James Morgan's feather-light and spring-bright set, and with Linda Fisher's elegant costumes and Brian Nason's fine lighting) with unerring vivacity and energy, as if she were committed to presenting a top-tier production of Wilde's play. Her unwillingness to depend on songs that can't help her - despite the virtues of musical director Mark Hartman's energetic four-piece band (which includes a harp) and Barry McNabb's unassuming choreography - aids the evening tremendously.

As do most of the cast members. Holcomb is a real discovery, giddily embodying Algy's gadabout nature, but always balancing his barely contained playfulness with the mock stuffiness he affects for others' benefits. (Despite the paucity of musicals in his program bio, Holcomb also sings exceedingly well.) With the exception of Racey, who's charming in a soft-shoe break in his opening number but otherwise almost constantly mugs through his scenes and songs, the other performers are appropriate and talented enough to play Wilde's version and arouse no suspicion and encourage no refunds.

This especially includes Beth Fowler. A winning actress whose roles are usually more of the softly maternal variety (she's best known to current audiences for originating Peter Allen's mother in The Boy From Oz and Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast, both on Broadway), she steps into Gwendolen's mother's caustic shoes with absolute authority. She pierces with every zinger, fills the theater with her bulging-eye and puffed-cheek looks, and radiates exactly the sense of frozen societal judgmentalism the character needs to thrive. Fowler is an utter joy in the role.

She also knows just what to do with a song that would stymie many lesser actors. "A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother" merely stretches out of a few lines of Wilde that explain Jack's twisted provenance, yet Fowler wields it like a razor-tipped anthem that intricately details her own previously inexpressible life philosophy. For the few brief minutes she glowers and powers through the song, you stop thinking about everything the music isn't giving you that the book is. Yes, you return to drudging reality not long after. But whenever Fowler, Croswell, and Moore most firmly embrace Wilde, Ernest in Love delights too much to seem as unnecessary as it actually is.

Ernest In Love
Through January 3
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets are available by calling 212-727-2737
Performances: Wed 3:00 pm, Wed 8:00 pm, Th 8:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 3:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 3:00 pm
No performances on Fridays, December 25, 2009 or January 1, 2010.

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