It is a fact universally known that Americans at large are fascinated with English nobility. And with Downton Abbey over, In Tandem Theatre has kindly filled our yearning for cravats, marmalade and all the other appurtenances of Victorian privilege with Ernest in Love, a musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. Nobody could skewer high society more exquisitely than Wilde—but the play is over a hundred years old, and it’s an attractive idea to moisten up the spaces between Wilde’s dry epigrams with little dollops of song and dance. The show keeps the play’s best lines, and, with a cast that sings beautifully and savors their comic characters with all the relish of a lord tucking into an especially lavish high tea, it’s a delightful and frequently hilarious evening.
Director Jane Flieller expertly steers the tone between musical comedy and comedy of manners, adding amusing bits of business that derive from the characters, not just seeking a laugh. The players are broadly theatrical without being clownish; they understand that farce is best played straight. The talented leads capture the strange allure of entitlement: charming and winsome as can be, they don’t shy away from showing what spoiled little brats their characters are. Algernon, Jack, Gwendolyn and Cecily are the trust-funders of their day, with nothing better to do than make up lies to cover their imprudent escapades, or slacking off on their studies to journal about their naughty fantasies. Zachary Thomas Woods plays a suitably befuddled Jack, whose dilemmas drive the slender plot. He really seems to not grow into his noble passion: when singing to his beloved Gwendolen, he seems almost appalled by this strange new feeling that’s come over him. Doug Clemons gives Algernon raffish flamboyance as a shameless playboy; yet he meets his match in Peyton Oseth’s delightful Cecily, a cloistered teen whose sweetness barely conceals an adventurous spirit (they’ll probably be terrible for each other). Meanwhile, as the lovely Gwendolen, Kristin Hammargren embodies the girl’s intelligence and self-possession— and later on, a steely will that bodes ill for poor Jack.
Lady Bracknell is everyone’s favorite, a deathless literary character. Many current productions cast an actor in drag; they didn’t have Angela Iannone to fill the role. The Dowager Countess without a trace of open-mindedness, Lady B. is the Voice of Society: utterly certain that, even if its norms weren’t ordained by the creator, they are no less absolute. Iannone rolls out her aphorisms with great relish; she draws out her line “A handbag?” to several incredulous syllables, and sometimes seems almost overcome by the other characters’ sheer stupidity. It’s a performance to treasure, and raises up the entire cast. Also worthy of mention is the always-entertaining David Flores as a bon-vivant priest.
The music is delivered by David Bonofiglio’s electric piano with welcome backup from a flute and a clarinet, and set into motion by James Zager’s workmanlike choreography. This 1960 show’s romantic music contrasts interestingly with the play’s lemony satire. Anne Croswell’s book and lyrics set Wilde’s best witticisms in the decorative framework of music by Lee Pockriss. And though his melodies are as bland as his biggest hits (“Catch a Falling Star” and “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” if you must know), recalling at best Lerner and Lowe on an off day, they’re greatly redeemed by the excellent singers; some of the women’s numbers particularly soar.
Wilde reportedly said that the message of The Importance of Being Ernest is that “we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality.” Setting the play to music doesn’t really add or subtract from this theme—but it does makes the journey even lighter. Most importantly, it gives the performers license to adopt a broader, freer style and the comedy is all the better for it. All told, Ernest in Love is a thoroughly delightful musical of small problems— and big laughs.
In Tandem Theatre presents
Ernest in Love
Book and lyrics by Anne Croswell; music by Lee Pockriss
Playing through May 15
Tenth Street Theatre
628 N. 10th Street