Fortunately, the authors honored the essentials of Wilde's frivolous tale, in which Jack Worthing (Noah Racey) and Algernon Moncrieff (Ian Holcomb) instigate "Bunbury"-infused shenanigans so as to lure Gwendolen Fairfax (Annika Boras) and Cecily Cardew (Katie Fabel) into their hearths and hearts. The farcical, gleefully implausible dynamic of these relationships are preserved just barely by Croswell's book, which is to say she retains the delicious Wilde epigrams that made the play such a timeless confection.
And, of course, what really catapults "Ernest" (and "Earnest") over the top is sour, stentorian Lady Bracknell (Beth Fowler), who is transformed from the viceroy of Victorianism in the play into the vicar of viciousness here. To be fair, Fowler excels at this quite beautifully; the Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter number that establishes her objection to one of the romances at hand—"A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother"—seems almost tailor-made for her comic intensity.
Still, by transforming the Wilde play into a musical, the authors needlessly alter the balance of characters. No offense to the working class, but the attempt to explore servants Lane (Brad Bradley) and Alice (Kerry Conte) seems disposable. Worse, the enhancement of the relationship between governess Miss Prism (Kristin Griffith) and minister Dr. Chasuble (Peter Maloney) feels pat, even dutiful, not an embellishment upon Wilde's construction. Similarly, the choreography devised by Barry McNabb may be jaunty, with sweet paeans to the old soft shoe, but would Jack really tap?
However nicely sung, however nicely rendered is Mark Hartman's four-piece arrangement, the songs are constant reminders that this is an inferior product. It's left to the performers to exceed their material, which is what they do, from Racey's bug-eyed bumbling to—and especially—Holcomb's delirious foray into all that is fey. Indeed, with their lusty winks and smirks at one another, Jack and Algy are also wildly—or maybe it's Wildely—gay. Something about the performances of Boras and Fabel tells me that deep down, Gwen and Cecily know it as well. Oh, "Ernest" is in love, all right, but not with this musical—and not, I fear, with the fetching lasses at hand.
Presented by and at the Irish Repertory Theatre 132 W. 22nd St., NYC. Dec. 20–Feb. 14. Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 727-2737 or www.irishrep.org. Casting by Debbie Brown.