The cast of TheatreWorks’ world-premiere musical Being Earnest includes, from left, Mindy Lym, Hayden Tee, Euan Morton and Riley Krull. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is now set in 1965 and includes an original score by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska. Photo by Mark Kitaoka. Below: The Act 2 opener, “All in the Gutter,” pays tribute to Wilde. The complete cast includes, from left, Lym, Krull, Diana Torres Koss, Tee, Morton, Brian Herndon and Maureen McVerry. Photo by Tracy Martin
In addition to some terrific songs and a perennial reason to scream at Dover to “move yer bloomin’ ass,” My Fair Lady has left an interesting legacy in the form a highly raised bar to which all classic plays turned into musicals must aspire. Most composers have all but given up trying to transform an already great play into an even better musical and instead turn to movies as grist for the musical mill.
But Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska are still aiming toward the Shavian/Lerner and Loeweian heights. Quite courageously, they have turned Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest into a musical. Being Earnest, their transformed work, is having its world premiere courtesy of TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Taken from its late 18th-century time period and transported to London’s fashionable and swinging Carnaby Street circa 1965, this admirable attempt to musicalize Wilde takes some risks, but, it turns out, none of them are quite big enough.
Being Earnest is a perfectly pleasant two-plus hours. Wilde’s ever-reliable play, still largely intact, offers wit and crisp comedy, and the score, with music by Gruska and Gordon and lyrics by Gordon, feels repetitive, but at least what’s repeated has a sturdy melodic hook. But there’s no fizz in the score to match the carbonation of Wilde’s farce. The sound of the mid-’60s in England is evoked but without the go-go energy and ebullience that the play aches for.
The basic fact is that Earnest the play did not need to be a musical at all. The play, though brilliantly written, requires a delicate comic touch, a careful approach to tone and performance that relies heavily on timing and tempo. The songs simply gum up the comic works and make the actors, under the direction of Robert Kelley, work too hard to connect the dots between the original text, the songs and a time period shift that ultimately feels way out of whack with the stolid society that Wilde was satirizing.
In a reversal of most musicals, Act 2 is actually much better than Act 1 because Wilde’s comic machinations are grinding away at full steam and a song finally lands solidly. The cat fight between Gwendolen (Mindy Lym) and Cecily (Riley Krull), who mistakenly believe they’re engaged to the same man, is actually sharpened by the musical thrust and parry. The only song in Act 1 that comes close to matching the play’s comedy and serving a real purpose is Lym’s reverie about men named Ernest, “Age of Ideals.”
A good example of tone and setting working against the play is veteran Bay Area comic actor Maureen McVerry as Lady Bracknell. The role’s comedy stems from dowager stuffiness and blatant greed masquerading as propriety. McVerry is, as expected, quite funny, but she looks so chic and gorgeous in Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes that it’s hard to get a bead on where the character is coming from and why, in 1965, she is being so creakily old-fashioned.
The opening number attempts to set the scene, and while that song, along with the snazzy mod costumes on parade, should do the trick, the annoying video screen at the back of Joe Ragey’s set design goes into overdrive with photos of Twiggy and the Rolling Stones to ensure there’s no mistaking when and where we are. But if the score can’t do it, then it’s not really getting done.
Leading men Euan Morton as Algernon and Hayden Tee as Jack, who don’t fare nearly as well as the women on the fashion front, are never very likable, and it seems they keep singing the same song at each other for most of the show. Brian Herndon as butlers Lane (in the city) and Merriman (in the country) and as the Rev. Chasuble feels much more in tune with Wilde and seems to be laboring much less feverishly. Diana Torres Koss as Miss Prism also has some nice moments, though the notion of a spinster teacher/companion employed by a guardian for his 20-year-old ward seems much more 1895 than 1965.
What you don’t want in a production of Earnest, musical or not, is for the play to seem like an endless string of Wildean epigrams strung together by an ineffectual plot enacted by brittle caricatures resembling people. Too many scenes come off that way here, and the Act 2 opener, “All in the Gutter,” is actually a string of Wilde epigrams performed in front of a photo of the author on the big video screen. It is, in effect, what “Seasons of Love” is in Rent: a direct address to the audience welcoming them back from intermission and attempting to re-immerse them in the world of the show. In theory, it works, but in practice it does not.
Even while you can admire the attempt to improve upon The Importance of Being Earnest, it comes down to this: Wilde’s is a comedy for the ages, touched with brilliance. Being Earnest has been created with intelligence and some charm, but it tames Wilde and adds weight where there should be lightness.
I talked to composers Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
TheatreWorks’ Being Earnest continues through April 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.