TheatreWorks’ musical Earnest fun but unnecessary

Earnest 1
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.”

Earnest 2

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.

[bonus interview]
I talked to composers Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

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

The long, long legs of Daddy Long Legs

<Daddy Long Legs 

Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock star in the TheatreWorks premiere of
Daddy Long Legs, a new musical. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.


There’s a joke about being huge in Japan, but in the case of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs, it’s quite true. The novel continues to be a big hit in Japan and in England as well. Why? Perhaps it’s Webster’s strong feminist (for the early 20th century anyway) take on life. She’s strident but with charm.

The latest incarnation of Webster’s story – after her own stage adaptation, countless movie versions (including the most famous with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron in 1955), a British stage musical and made-for-Japanese-TV movies – is a new chamber musical from the team of Paul Gordon (music and lyrics) and John Caird (book and direction). These are the guys who partnered so memorably on Jane Eyre (a Broadway flop but a hit for TheatreWorks) and Emma (a big, big hit for TheatreWorks), and they return to TheatreWorks with Daddy Long Legs, a co-production with Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura (where the show made its initial bow) and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (the final stop after Mountain View).

I interviewed Caird and Gordon for Theatre Bay Area magazine. Read the story here.

The TheatreWorks production is completely delightful – if you’re a musical theatre fan. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t appreciate being sung at for 2 ½ hours having a good time here, but what’s surprising in Caird’s production is the way he keeps the stage lively with only two people singing and not interacting face to face until the end. Like Webster’s book, this is an epistolary story. Jerusha (Megan McGinnis) is the oldest orphan in the orphanage, and her spunk has been noticed by a benefactor who volunteers to pay for her college education. The donor wishes to remain anonymous, but Jerusha catches a glimpse of his long, leggy shadow and comes up with the nickname Daddy Long Legs.

Unlike Webster’s book, the musical allows us to hear from the benefactor, Jervis (Robert Adelman Hancock) through letters to Jerusha he writes but never sends. Through a bit of duplicity, Jervis actually meets Jerusha, but she remains unaware that he’s anything but a roommate’s uncle. What was creepy in the Astaire-Caron movie (the age difference was a game killer in spite of Astaire’s considerable charms) is a non-issue here. Jerusha thinks her “daddy” is an ancient money bags type, when in reality he’s sort of a hot, young money bags type. Their fated hook-up is actually welcome rather than cringe inducing.

There’s a certain sameness to Gordon’s appealing pop-folk-show tune score, but luckily the sound is quite pleasant even if you can’t always tell one song from another. The inevitable romantic ending cries out for a full-out show tune duet, but Gordon keeps things fairly low key, and music director Laura Bergquist (along with her warm, inviting six-piece band paying Gordon’s own orchestrations) never fails him in terms of keeping momentum and emotion pouring from the orchestra pit.

Though not as sparkling as Emma, Daddy Long Legs has tremendous charm, and much of it emanates from McGinnis, who is perfectly cast as the smart and lively Jerusha. Hancock provides a nice foil for her (along with some lovely harmonies), but the show really belongs to McGinnis, whose attractive voice and endearing manner really give this Daddy legs.


Daddy Long Legs continues through Feb. 14 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $34 to $67. Call 650-463-1960 or visit for information.




`Emma’ still singing

Paul Gordon’s musical version of Emma, which Bay Area audiences turned into TheatreWorks’ highest-grossing production in its 38-year history, continues its merry matchmaking.

Cincinnati Playhouse and The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis are co-producing Emma, and TheatreWorks founding artistic director, Robert Kelley will be at the helm, just as he was for the Mountain View production.

The show, based on the Jane Austen novel, is at the Cincinnati Playhouse Sept. 2 – Oct. 3 and at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Oct. 8-Nov. 2; several cast members from the TheatreWorks world premiere are expected to reprise their respective roles.

2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Review: `Emma’

Opened Aug. 25 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

TheatreWorks’ Emma charms, delights in world premiere musical adaptation
three [1/2] stars A match well made

Oh the pain of being an eligible bachelor in a Jane Austen novel. All the single women claw at you like cats at a scratching post, and everyone in the county is up in your business like Lindsay Lohan on a bender.

Such is the case with single men Mr. Knightley, Mr. Elton, Mr. Churchill and Mr. Martin in Austen’s Emma. Their very bachelorhood drives the plot and throws everyone in the book into an upright British tizzy.

There are so many flustered emotions and heaving bodices in Austen’s novel, it’s no wonder Paul Gordon took the next logical step and made all these desperately romantic people sing.

Writing the music, lyrics, book and orchestrations, Gordon is the mastermind behind Emma, the world-premiere musical that opened Saturday at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The opening marked a milestone for its producer, TheatreWorks, by being the company’s 50th world premiere.

As far as world premieres go, Emma is in remarkably good shape. Gordon’s score — an easy-on-the-ears kind of chamber pop orchestrated for violin, cello, oboe/English horn and piano — hits all the right notes and captures both the silliness and earnest romance in Austen’s 1815 novel.

Robert Kelley’s direction is fluid and unfussy, with Joe Ragey’s simple, swiftly moving set — which places the small orchestra on top of a pavilion center stage — adding immeasurably to the cinematic speed of scene changes.

But setting really is the least important thing about Emma. All we need to know is that we’re in the town of Highbury, south of London, where everybody’s business is everybody’s business, and the bulk of that business is who’s going to marry whom.

Chief busybody in this story is Emma Woodhouse (Lianne Marie Dobbs), a perky young woman of means with a penchant for matchmaking. She’s not really any good at it, but that doesn’t stop her. By musical’s end, she will have realized her “insufferable vanity” and “unpardonable arrogance,” and that helps us like her from the beginning, even as she sings things like, “I’m awed by my talent” or “Why pick your own mate when I can impose?”

Emma attempts to match her friend Harriet (Dani Marcus) with the town’s new vicar, Mr. Elton (Brian Herndon). What Emma doesn’t realize, in all her ministrations, is that Elton is infatuated with her, not Harriet, which leaves poor Harriet hanging out to dry, especially Emma has encouraged her not to marry the nice farm boy Mr. Martin (Nick Nakashima), who is apparently too low for consideration.

Emma attempts a match for herself with Mr. Frank Churchill (Travis Poelle) if only because, on paper, he’s perfect for her. In the flesh, he also happens to be handsome and charming, but there are no sparks.

The only sparking onstage comes from Emma’s interaction with Mr. Knightley (Timothy Gulan), a sort of family member — his brother is married to Emma’s sister. The two spar like brother and sister, but come Act 2, they both begin to realize that under their quarreling lies something much more intense.

Gordon’s last musical was Jane Eyre, which had a go on Broadway before it hit the regional theaters. TheatreWorks was the first to produce it outside New York, and the 2003 production was admirable. But to be frank, it made little sense to have such dark, gloomy 19th century folks singing.

It’s much more reasonable to accept Austen’s characters singing nonstop about love and fate and heartache. And Gordon’s score — much less bland and far more shaped than many a new musical — provides comedy (“Humiliation,” “Mr. Robert Martin,” “Relations”), heart (“Emma,” “Home”) and even a diva moment or two (“Should We Ever Meet,” “The Recital’). There are moments when the show threatens to become twee — too much singing about strawberries, for instance — but the humor undercuts the preciousness.

The cast is highly enjoyable, with Dobbs, a homegrown Bay Area performer who has truly come into her own as a musical theater star, elevating the entire show with her eminently likable Emma.

The combination of Austen’s sturdy storytelling and Gordon’s masterful music is a match even Emma would approve of, and that’s saying quite a lot.

For information about Emma, visit

Making `Emma’ sing

Here’s how Jane Austen describes the title character of her novel Emma:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Austen goes on to mention, in a nice way, that Emma is spoiled and that she had “rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”

Emma, in her sweet arrogance, goes on to meddle — always with good intentions — in the lives of those around her, matchmaking and fussing until she finds love right under her own nose.
If Austen were around today, she would have seen Emma portrayed on film by Gwyneth Paltrow in a fairly straightforward adaptation called Emma and by Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, a perky teen comedy that is actually a clever adaptation of Austen’s novel.

This weekend, Austen might be delighted (or alarmed) to see her “handsome, clever and rich” Emma singing onstage in TheatreWorks’ Emma, a world-premiere musical by Paul Gordon.

In 2000, Gordon was represented on Broadway by another literary musical heroine, Jane Eyre. That’s the show that connected him with TheatreWorks, the first regional theater company to produce Jane Eyre after its Broadway run.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I came to see Jane Eyre in Mountain View,” Gordon says. “But I fell in love with the production and with (artistic director) Robert Kelley’s direction.”

The new relationship continued when Gordon’s Emma, for which he is doing triple duty writing music, lyrics and book, was selected to be part of TheatreWorks’ 2006 New Works Initiative.

Talk about fast track _ a year later the show is already on the main stage.

“Some projects just go faster than others,” Gordon says before heading into a rehearsal. “For whatever reason, I wrote Emma in six months, and before I was even done, TheatreWorks was doing the first reading. Now, not even a year after that, we’re up to the first production.”

Gordon, whose background includes penning pop hits for Peter Cetera and Amy Grant (“Next Time I Fall”) as well as for Bette Midler, Quincy Jones and others, didn’t intend to write the entire show by himself.

He wrote the score, which he describes as a “chamber musical scored by oboe, cello, violin and piano that blends theater music with the Beatles — think `Eleanor Rigby,’[TH]” and sketched out a first-draft script.

“I figured someone would come in later and write the actual book,” Gordon explains. “But the first reading went just fine. Remarkably, the thing worked.”

The reason? Gordon’s collaborator — his book writer, if you will — was Jane Austen.

“It’s not like I’ve written a new story,” Gordon says. “Obviously I’m writing some different scenes and transitions, things you naturally do in an adaptation, but this is her story. I’m using as many of her words as I can. I’m humble enough to know that whatever anyone thinks of the book, good or bad, it’s Jane Austen.”

Kelley is back in the director’s seat for Emma, opens Saturday at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, and there’s another holdover from Jane Eyre as well.

Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs, a veteran of TheatreWorks and 42nd Street Moon shows, played Helen Burns in “Jane Eyre” and now plays the title role in Emma.

Dobbs has been something of a muse to Gordon on this project.

“It turned out that Lianne was instrumental in making TheatreWorks aware that I was writing Emma,” Gordon says. “She made sure I got the script to (TheatreWorks’ director of New Works) Kent Nicholson, and then she flew out to L.A. to record the demos with me.”

Gordon says he wrote the character of Emma with Dobbs in mind.

“She has the right presence, spirit and intelligence for a role such as Emma,” Gordon says. “It’s hard to find actresses who sing well and act well. Lianne personifies the idea of Emma, and she’s such a great musician with a wonderfully trained ear. She cares deeply about the character, and that really helps me.”

Emma hits the stage only a few weeks after another Austen-themed project, Becoming Jane starring Anne Hathaway as the British writer, hit movie screens. hardly a year goes by, it seems, without popular culture rummaging through Austen’s collected works.

“The timing is good for us, but it’s certainly not planned,” Gordon says. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this resurgence of love for Austen’s brilliant work will help the journey of this show. Our goal is to try and live up to Jane Austen’s vision. She set the bar pretty high. I respect that and want to do right by her.”

Another project close to Gordon’s heart is the Web site, an attempt to shine the spotlight on singers and songwriters who, in Gordon’s opinion, aren’t receiving the kind of exposure they should in th emusic business and the mainstream media.

“I went to a bunch of singers and songwriters I know — one of the first was Alanis Morissette — and asked them to recommend 10 artists they love and that no one has ever heard of,” Gordon says. I went to Robbie Robertson and Jackson Browne and a bunch of people, and they were more than happy to share the music they really love, and those people in turn make recommendations and so on, and so on.”

The hope behind the site, Gordon says, is to try and find a way for the artists to support themselves — “we’re not expecting millionaires here” — to to allow the musicians to devote themselves to their music and find a way in this digital age to support other artists and create community.

In the near future, Gordon hopes the site will offer what he calls a “backstage pass,” which for about $20 or so, subscribers can download all the content on the site, which would be songs by 200 to 300 artists.

“The artists are really enthusiastic,” Gordon says. “They love the idea.”

Visitors to can search on Gordon’s name to come up with what he considers a decent introduction to his work. He recommends visitors take a listen to “Theme from Emma” (from his current project), “Secret of Happiness” (from another project with Jane Eyre collaborator John Caird based on Daddy Long Legs) and “Unholy Train” (a solo work that’s more of his pop music/singer-songwriter side).

Emma continues through Sept. 16 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, corner of Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $25 to $61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit

TheatreWorks’ new season

Jane Austen, Thronton Wilder, Tony Kushner and Golda Meir will all be there…sort of.

Robert Kelley, the founding artistic director of Mountain View’s TheatreWorks has just announced his company’s 38th season.

Unlike many theaters around the Bay Area, TheatreWorks begins its season in the summer, and this year, Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, the story of deformed circus sideshow attraction John Merrick, kicks things off June 20. TheatreWorks produced the play, which, unlike the movie version, leaves the deformities to the imagination, in 1985.

In July comes the West Coast premiere of Theophilus North, Matthew Burnett’s adaptation of the charming Thornton Wilder novel of the same name.

Next up in August is the world premiere of a new musical based on Jane Austen’s Emma, the tale of a well-meaninng matchmaker who finally stumbles into her own true love. Paul Gordon (Broadway’s Jane Eyre) contributes music, lyrics and book.

In October comes more serious fare: William Gibson’s one-woman show Golda’s Balcony, a peek into the complex mind and heart of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

For the holidays comes Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and with the new year comes a welcome old friend: the late Wendy Wassterstein (below), whose last play, Third, finally makes it to the West Coast.

In March 2008, Kathleen Clark’s Southern Comforts, a late-in-life love story, takes a bow, followed by the season-ending Caroline, or Change, with book and lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori. If you saw the touring Broadway version in San Francisco, you know this is one of the most powerful and important musicals to come along in the last decade or so. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s your chance.

Subscriptions for the season range from $100 to $373 and are available now. Single tickets go on sale June 1. Call (888) 273-3752 or visit for information.