With book and lyrics by Anne Croswell, music by Lee Pockriss, directed by Kysa Cohen, performed by a cadre of Playhouse regulars with a sprinkling of newcomers, this is The Importance of Being Earnest as musical. If other musical versions of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece exist, I have not seen them. If it doesn't entirely measure up to the original's wit and elegance, what does?
Sometimes Ernest takes us behind the scenes to introduce action and characters not in Wilde's script; sometimes—no innuendo intended—it's straight Wilde, as in the deliciously bitchy tea-table scene in which Gwendolen and Cecily have at each other with tooth and claw like the highborn ladies they are. The hustle-bustle opening street scene of "creditors and valets" ("Come Raise Your Cup") is apocrypha with some of My Fair Lady's jolly ambience. "You Can't Make Love," a torrid duet with Algy's valet Lane (Kevin Gardner) and the housemaid Effie (Sara Cohen) borders on bawdy. I'm not sure Wilde would approve. Autre temps, autre mores.
Scions of wealth and privilege Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff are played, respectively, by Bill Strongin and Stephen F. Agosto, who delight and dismay with their flippancy. Agosto's Algy behaves atrociously, gobbles up all the cucumber sandwiches, then blames Lane when none remain for his awesome auntie, Elise Dewsberry's dowager Lady Bracknell. Program notes reveal that Strongin is from Nebraska; the clean-cut youth is obviously a bundle of heartland-American virtue that can't be disguised. On the other hand Agosto flaunts Algy's outrageousness with flounce and flourish. But in his serenade to Cecily ("Lost"), his hauntingly beautiful voice and delivery alert us to the actor's true métier and a moment of truth.
Dewsberry has all the authority of voice and presence Lady Bracknell needs—and then some. Elizabeth Ginnett's unflappable Gwendolen resembles Céline Dion. Jennifer Marshall's Cecily is a vision of English rose petals and Devonshire cream stepped out of a Fragonard painting. (What a silly goose she is, trilling her yen to meet "A Wicked Man" in Victorian England with Jack the Ripper on the loose.) Christina Linhardt's Miss Prism, Cecily's governess, is the play's surprise deus ex machina—an enchanting combination of prissiness, quirkiness, and a mode of locomotion that seems to put her on wheels. As her sweetie Rev. Dr. Chasuble, Cort Huckabone doesn't fool us with that dusting of power on his front hair; he's much too young. Cohen's Effie is a lusty wench. Ex-stage manager Jessica Teter revels in her onstage debut as housemaid Alice. Jeremy Gable is Jack's dutiful valet Perkins.
Designers Andrew Otero (set) and Michael Shrupp (lights) make the most of the stage's three-quarter-round rectangle space. Mark Travis Hoyer (wigs) and certainly Greg Fritsche (hats galore) outdo themselves. Costumer Donna Fritsche's period creations are museum-worthy. Bill Wolfe deserves his applause as music director and yeoman pianist.
"Ernest in Love," presented by and at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Apr. 4-May 10. $18-20. (562) 494-1014.