REVIEWS: Ernest in Love

Ernest In Love
EDGE Entertainment - March 23, 2007
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman

Ernest in Love, a forty-seven year old musical that was never quite the hit it should have been, is being given a fresh chance by Musicals Tonight, a producing organization in New York City that resurrects old shows with new fresh faces. This season’s offerings are dedicated to veteran Broadway musical man George S. Irving (also known as Maria Karnilova’s husband). Though he was announced for the role of Lady Bracknell for this production’s short run, he wasn’t on stage on Wednesday night. That role was taken instead by Deborah Jean Templin whose delightfully Edna Mae Oliver reading of the role was refreshing and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of her song, "A Handbag is Not a Proper Mother."

The show originally opened at the Gramercy Arts Theatre on May 4, 1960 and ran for 111 performances. It had the bad luck to open just two days after The Fantasticks which, with less favorable reviews than Ernest in Love, went on to run for well over 17,000 performances.

The show has been long prized for its original cast recording that featured a triple threat of female actors of the day: Leila Martin, Sara Seegar and Gerianne Raphael. This staged reading (costumed with set pieces and a single piano accompaniment, but fully cast with professional, union-member actors) marks the first time it’s being seen in New York in many, many years. Most of the company handle their roles extremely well, even giving a new spin to their interpretations, like Templin’s acrid Bracknell.

Another actress who has completely embraced her character is Sarah Dacey Charles as Miss Prism. Margaret Rutherford gave the role her usual ditsy but definitive spin in the popular film version from a half-century ago; but Charles actually turns the woman into a sexual creature, a bit predatory but still discreet. It was a nice switch on a character all too often played in rank imitation of Rutherford. Prism’s musical duet with William Ryall as the minister, Dr. Chasuble, is a highlight of this edition of the show. Gone is the sense of confusion in terminology, with that discombobulation replaced by a clearly specific choice of words designed to titillate. Ryall is her equal at every turn, dramatic, comedic or musical; and they are also the tallest people on stage, dominating everyone except Templin.

The young lovers, mismatched pairings if ever there were two, were played by one perfect player, two mildly reasonable choices and one unfortunate choice. Jack Worthing, the false "Ernest," was played by Blake Hackler; his friend and anti-confidante Algernon Moncrieff was performed by Nick Dalton. As Ernest’s beloved Gwendolyn we were treated to the talents of Lauren Molina and as Jack’s young ward, Cecily Cardew, there was Melissa Bohon. Topping the list of appropriately conceived performances is Molina’s society bitch Gwendolyn. As she sits searching for the perfectly enticing hat, as she air-kisses Cecily, as she importunes a marriage proposal out of Ernest and an apology out of Jack, she is superb. In both solo or ensemble work, she is clearly in charge. A former Johanna in the revival of Sweeney Todd, it seems clear that this is a lady on the way up.

Her lover was enthusiastic and reasonably good at his music, but even so Hackler seemed just too young for Ernest, and even more so for Jack. (There are not two characters here, but one masquerading as another - see the show and have it explained by the plot rather than by me). His youthfulness was matched by his partner in crime, Dalton. Their two duets together sounded much better than the singing on the original cast recording, by the way. On the distaff side Bohon needs more time to develop her talent. Cecily is not an easy role. Supposedly a teenager, she is often played by older actresses (such as Dorothy Tutin in the classic film). Bohon’s previous credits clearly indicate a career at its early stages and while her comedy was decently played, her singing was definitely lacking.

The supporting cast did their best. One of the flaws of this show was its addition of a chorus for the opening number, mostly men who never appear again. In this version, though, they help move the scenery. But once you start a show with a choral opening, the audience anticipates a second and possibly third use of those vocal resources and that never happens in this musical. It’s a problem that no one has solved yet; perhaps no one ever will.

Bill Stanley at the piano does wonderfully with the music, often supporting the difficult counterpoint sections (many of which do not appear on the recording). Croswell and Pockriss wrote the Broadway musical Tovarich, which opened three years later and won Tony Awards for its star Vivienne Leigh and a nomination for co-star Louise Troy. It ran twice as long as this show, still not a great record, even for its day. One of the true stars of the later show was George S. Irving, hence the tie-in for this season at Musicals Tonight.

Thomas Mills, the director, is in his seventh season with this company that inhabits the McGinne/Cazale Theatre, located on the third floor at 2162 Broadway at 76 Street, above the Promenade Theater. Mills does nicely with the show, creating fluid and attractive pictures with his people and bringing the illusion of a production this script-in-hand reading.

This is off-off-Broadway and it’s worth every penny to hear how neatly this show can work once you get past the embarrassment of the opening scene.

Ernest in Love - March 26, 2007
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, would seem too perfect for adaptation. However, the 1960 musical version by librettist and lyricist Anne Croswell and composer Lee Pockriss, Ernest in Love being revived by Musicals Tonight! proves to be a charming, delightful work. Thomas Mills’ stylish and graceful production may be the most sophisticated that Musicals Tonight! has yet staged. Of course, with Oscar Wilde’s dialogue, first rate actors and a clever score, Ernest in Love is an elegant entertainment. Musical director Bill Stanley’s light touch at the piano makes the score a delectable listening experience.

Wilde’s famed plot remains intact with some additional sequences for the servants. Algernon has discovered that his best friend “Ernest” Worthing is living a double life as “Jack” with an 18 year old ward Cecily and a country house somewhere outside of London. As Ernest, Jack wishes to marry Gwendolen, the daughter of Lady Bracknell and Algernon’s cousin. However, when Lady Bracknell learns that Ernest was adopted by a gentleman who received him in a handbag at a railway station, she refuses her permission for the engagement (“A Handbag is Not a Proper Mother”). When Algernon overhears Ernest giving Gwendolen the address of his country house, he decides to make a surprise visit and meet Cecily. In the country, impressionable Cecily imagines herself in love with her guardian’s non-existent brother whom she has never met (“A Wicked Man”). When first Gwendolen and later Lady Bracknell also show up at Worthing’s country house, the stage is set for a great many complications and reconciliations.

Croswell’s libretto adds three scenes and two maids that Wilde did not think up: an opening number for the servants shopping for their masters, “ Come Raise Your Cup”; a wonderful double scene in which Jack and Gwendolen each in their own rooms sing in counterpoint about dressing for the other “The Hat”/”The Cravat”; and an Upstairs, Downstairs number for a male and female servant meeting at Jack’s country house for the first time, “You Can’t Make Love.” Her clever lyrics wisely do not try to compete with Wilde in wit, but make use of 19th century vocabulary for their rhymes. Pockriss, most famous for the song, “Catch a Falling Star,” has composed a very melodic and catchy score which includes ballads, patter songs and music hall style numbers. Among the lilting duets are Algernon and Jack’s “Mr. Bunbury” and “The Muffin Song,” Gwendolen and Cecily’s “My Very First Impression,” and Miss Prism and Rev. Chasuble’s “Metaphorically Speaking.”

Mills’ cast is so well prepared that in this fully costumed concert staging they almost never make use of their scripts. Nick Dalton as the unflappable Algernon makes an interesting contrast with Blake Hackler’s easily excitable Jack Worthing. Lauren Molina is extremely animated as Gwendolen, while Melissa Bohon’s Cecily exhibits a very dry sense of humor.

Sarah Dacey Charles is delightful as the pedantic governess while William Ryall’s Dr. Chasuble is a match for her in sententiousness.

Only Deborah Jean Templin’s Lady Bracknell is a disappointment. Replacing the previously announced George S. Irving, Templin misses the necessary archness that would make her paradoxical aphorisms hilarious. As a result, she fails to get all the requisite laughs out of this very funny role. Selby Brown as Algernon’s manservant, Katherine McClain as Cecily’s maid, and Roger Rifkin as Worthing’s valet give able support.

Ernest in Love is a delightful musicalization of one of the three greatest comedies in English literature. Musicals Tonight! has surpassed its own standard with its elegant and stylish version of this musical which deserves to be better known.

Ernest in Love
Theatre Talk - March 24, 2007
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 - March 22, 2007
Reviewed by Lisa Ferber

Being a huge Oscar Wilde fan, I didn't know whether a musicalization of his witty 1895 play The Importance of Being Ernest would work, but I had to find out. Musicals Tonight!'s production of Ernest in Love, with book and lyrics by Anne Croswell and music by Lee Pockriss, is an absolute delight.

The performers across the board do wonderful work here, and I hesitate to even give any special mentions. Actors who spend shorter amounts onstage deliver just as much punch as those with more time.

The story revolves around two fellows, Algernon and Jack, who have told their lady loves that their names are actually Ernest. Jack wishes to marry Gwendolyn, but her guardian Lady Bracknell is not too fond of Jack's lack of breeding. She is so not fond of it, in fact, that she is compelled to sing the song "A Handbag is Not a Proper Mother," a song hilarious in concept, execution, and performance.

For what it's worth, the first half of the show felt a bit slow in delivery, but picked up toward the second half, though this might just be a facet of it being early in the play's run.

Oscar Wilde is a fellow known for his wit and quotable bon mots, and this play is chock full: Among them: "The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If I ever get married, I will simply try to forget it"; "To be in society is such a bore. To be out of it is simply a tragedy"; "Scandals used to lend charm to a man; now, they crush him"; and, when Lady Bracknell is told that Jack is a smoker, "I'm glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation. There are far too many idle men in London as it is."

While a lesser lyricist might find it intimidating to match the incomparable Wilde, Croswell does a remarkable job. Her lyrics are full of surprises and she is able to convey grand concepts in tightly formed phrases. I could not move my pen fast enough so some of these are paraphrases: "How could we ever hope to capture / A synonym for rapture / For words are quite inopportune / When one is reaching for the moon"; "To love a rake / Is quite the norm / They love to make / The rake reform"; "When you kiss a man in a ladylike way / You just can't put your soul in it / I guess a girl must be born in the hay / To know just how to roll in it."

This show is an absolute treat, and my favorite thing I've seen in a while.

Singing Wilde - March 23, 2007
Reviewed by Amy Krivohlavek

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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