BWW Review: East Coast Premiere of BEING EARNEST at Greater Boston Stage Company
Music by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska, Book and Lyrics by Paul Gordon, From the Play by Oscar Wilde; Directed and Choreographed by Ilyse Robbins; Music Director, Steve Bass; Scenic Designer, Nick Oberstein; Costume Designer, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Designer, Jeff Adelberg; Sound Designer, John Stone; Production Stage Manager, Rachel Sturm; Dialect Coach, Sam Richert
Performances through October 7 at Greater Boston Stage Company, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA; Box Office 781-279-2200 or www.greaterbostonstage.org
What happens when you take an Oscar Wilde classic play from the Naughty Nineties, add about a dozen original musical numbers, and update the story and setting to London's swinging Carnaby Street in the sixties? Well, if you put it in the hands of Director/Choreographer Ilyse Robbins and Music Director Steve Bass, you get a rom-com that is heavy on both the romance and the comedy, a ride in the wayback machine, and an afternoon (or evening) delight at the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham. The East Coast premiere of Being Earnest, with book and lyrics by Paul Gordon, music by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska, from the play (The Importance of Being Earnest) by Wilde, is a musical twist on the 1895 story of a pair of dissembling eligible bachelors who share a cocksure attitude, a pseudonym, and a modus operandi in their dealings with the fairer sex.
In adapting the play, the authors have stayed true to the original text, with some judicious editing and insertion of numerous quotes from other Wilde works. You might be surprised by the bits of dialogue that sound familiar, perhaps not even realizing that they come from Wilde. Pay attention to the song lyrics, as well, because there are more than a few gems from the likes of Lennon and McCartney, and other songs of the 60s, that the composers sneak in among their own. Gruska and Gordon have impressive resumés that include stage, screen, and recordings, and the latter wrote the music and lyrics to Daddy Long Legs, a favorite of mine that was staged at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in 2012.
The hallmark of Being Earnest is an overriding essence of fun and lightheartedness, both in the musical itself and in the performances. It is unlikely that more than half of the cast had been born when Carnaby Street became the center of swinging London, but even the young'uns get into the spirit of the period and rock the mod outfits (costume design by Gail Astrid Buckley), the hairstyles, and the bouncy dance steps. Robbins' choreography evokes the feeling of the times, while never looking dated or anything less than fresh. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have the likes of terrific dancers Ephie Aardema (Cecily Cardew) and Sara Coombs (Gwendolen Fairfax) in the central female roles, and they both sing and act up a storm, too. They are paired respectively with Michael Jennings Mahoney (Algernon Moncrieff), a curly-haired charmer, and Dave Heard (John Worthing), an engaging newcomer to the GBSC family. The four share great chemistry and all play their roles with just the right amount of cheeky tongue-in-cheek.
Rounding out the cast is a trio of Boston-area musical theater veterans. Kerry A. Dowling (Miss Prism) is known for her wonderful singing, but she shows off some great comedy chops here as her character tries to balance the thankless task of tutoring Cecily, while lusting after Reverend Chasuble (Will McGarrahan). McGarrahan juggles three characters, also playing Algernon's butler Lane and John's groundskeeper Merriman. He displays great range as he differentiates the three through a combination of posture, demeanor, and accent. Beth Gotha (Lady Bracknell) shows what a pro she is, commanding the stage in each of her scenes and inhabiting her character, without a false note, as if she has been playing Lady B. her whole life.
Nick Oberstein's set has a contemporary flair, while paying homage to the 60s. The cast moves props on and off to change the scene from Algernon's London flat to John's country estate, and lighting designer Jeff Adelberg provides appropriate effects for each. Sound designer John Stone helps make Bass and four other musicians sound crisp and clear, while allowing a good mix with the vocals. Robbins makes good use of the set in staging the musical numbers, at times having the backup singers pop out from behind a door, or chiming in from a balcony above the main stage.
Most of the songs have the sound reminiscent of the British invasion, and there are a few that you might find yourself humming on the way out of the theater. If you enjoy the musical numbers in the first act, be ready to enjoy them again in the second act. There are several reprises, which helps you to remember the ones you want to hum, but a few too many for my taste. However, that is a single quibble that takes a back seat to the feel-good feelings you'll get from Being Earnest.