Review: “Being Earnest” at Greater Boston Stage Company

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Ashley DiFranza

  • Boston Contributing Critic

Kicking off Greater Boston Stage Company’s 19th season is new musical “Being Earnest.” Based on Oscar Wilde’s 1894 play “The Importance of Being Earnest,” this show successfully takes the themes, plot, and characters from the well-known farce and layers in a 1960s vibe and a plethora of upbeat musical numbers to fill out the story. And while “Being Earnest” is not the first musical re-telling of Wilde’s comedy—some will consider “Who’s Earnest” or “Earnest in Love” among the originals of this kind—it is certainly a much more creative and conceptual take on the piece, handled masterfully in this production by director/choreographer Ilyse Robbins.

“Being Earnest,” with book and lyrics by Paul Gordon and music by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska, tells the story of two men, Algernon and John, who both bond over their mutual love of “Bunburying,” an act which allows them to escape confines of daily life by running to the aid of a fictitious friend in need. Always under the guise of visiting this friend, this plan allows Algernon to escape from the social obligations brought upon him by his wealthy, high class family. Oppositely, John, who primarily lives in the country with his ward Cecily and her caregivers, simply uses his fabricated brother Earnest to escape to the city and spend some time alone. While in the city and operating under the name Earnest, John falls in love with Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, who makes it perfectly clear she loves him too, but mostly because of his name. As John heads back to the country on a quest to get his name changed and set himself up for a life with Gwendolen, Algernon follows him and pretends to be his estranged brother Earnest—who does not actually exist—in an attempt to get close to Cecily. This confusion, combined with the complex standards of high society in England at this time, provide many obstacles for these lovers to overcome until they can finally find happiness. Add an exciting musical score into this story of fake identities, cheeky humor, and a whole lot of misunderstandings, and audiences can’t help but be swept up into the whirlwind that is “Being Earnest.”

Though it’s true that the plot itself may be almost a direct re-telling of Wilde’s original play, audiences surely have not seen a version quite as funky and fresh as this, a feat that can be directly credited to Robbins and her innate ability to sculpt a world on stage in which her characters can thrive. In a purely visual manner, the set, which is designed by Nick Oberstein, comes to life with bursts of orange and purple color, beaded curtains hanging in doorways, and puffy globe lights straight out of the 1960s. This backdrop, alongside incredibly fun ‘60s inspired costumes and wigs, designed by Gail Astrid Buckley, allows audiences to accept the frivolous, silly humor of this story before even the first clever turn of phrase.

What’s more, the music in this production, apart from just adding entertainment value, does a fantastic job of rounding out the story being told. Favorite moments from the original script, such as Gwendolen and Cecily’s first meeting where they both believe they are engaged to “Earnest,” when really one is to Algernon and one to John, are taken to new heights in song, layering in dueling harmonies and clever movement to punctuate the ladies’ polite but powerful dislike of one another. Similarly, farcical elements of Wilde’s story such as Gwendolen’s insistence on only marrying a man named “Earnest” are amplified through her delightful, slightly manic and yet adorably loving song to John about her feelings, helping audiences not only buy into, but fully appreciate the stylistic comedy this piece is built upon.

Much of the success of this more conceptual take on this story is due to the commitment and talent of the seven-person cast. Apart from simply playing their roles, which are demanding in themselves considering the complex use of language, British dialect, and the pacing of the dialogue in this script, these actors take on singing, dancing, and even transitioning set pieces throughout the production, as well. For this reason, the entire piece really relies on their focus, energy, and full embracement of every task they embark on, and this ensemble more than rises to the occasion.

Leading the charge in liveliness and dedication to his role is Michael Jennings Mahoney who plays Algernon Moncrieff, the bumbling bachelor with charm and suave smiles to spare. It is a role that requires a well-maintained balance between sweet and flawed, and in Jennings Mahoney’s capable hands it practically feels effortless, with charisma rolling off him as easily as the crumbs from the muffins his character indulges in on stage.

Acting opposite Jennings Mahoney’s Algernon is Ephie Aardema’s Cecily Cardew, John’s ward. In her performance, Aardema manages to combine a youthful innocence with the feisty attitude of a maturing young lady to create a version of Cecily that is not only refreshingly unique, but incredibly fitting for the mid-1960s time period in which this piece is set. Aardema’s characterization is so pleasingly spunky, in fact, that the role seems much her own, a testament to the actor’s commitment to the text and the wilder elements within Wilde’s story.

Contrasting Aardema’s Cecily perfectly is Sara Coombs, a Greater Boston Stage Company favorite, who plays Gwendolen Fairfax (and is the Dance Captain) in this production. Where both women are meant to appear endearingly intense in their pursuit of their loved ones, Coombs particularly finds a delicate and comedic way to portray Gwendolen’s somewhat dramatic and yet very heartfelt plight towards finding true love. That, combined with her beautiful singing voice and strong dance ability, allows Coombs to shine throughout this production.

Dave Heard’s John Worthing also compliments Coombs’ Gwendolen on stage. In playing the perfect English gentleman, he in turn becomes the “straight man” to much of Gwendolen’s comedic intensity, which gives audiences someone to relate to while the craziness of this story unfolds. Additionally, Heard successfully navigates both the confidence and insecurity present within John at different moments throughout the story, an impressive feat in a show that can often be regarded as one of just humor.

Representing very clearly the views of London society at this time, is the character of Lady Bracknell, portrayed expertly by Beth Gotha. Gotha’s impeccable comedic timing and dry, blunt outlook on the events occurring in her character’s life—such as her daughter and nephew wanting to possibly marry below their class level—have audiences in stitches from her first appearance. Yet her command over her character does not stop there; when Lady Bracknell suddenly learns that one of those wishing to marry into her family actually may have some money to their name after all, her tone switches from stuffy to loving in a breath, a very funny and well-navigated transition on Gotha’s part that represents the “old money” way of thinking at that time perfectly.

Filling out this talented cast are Kerry A. Dowling as the adorably awkward Miss. Prism, and Will McGarrahan as Lane/Rev. Chasuble/Merriman. Dowling manages to artfully layer in both humor and heart into her role, especially during the reveal of her tie to one of the main characters’ pasts. Similarly, McGarrahan easily differentiates between the handful of roles he portrays in this production, changing up everything from his mannerisms to the type of British dialect he uses from one character to the next.

Between the extreme level of talent up on stage, and the incredible direction and music direction of Ilyse Robbins and Steve Bass respectfully, it is no wonder that Greater Boston Stage Company has managed to produce yet another piece of theater that pushes the limits of expectation and leaves audiences wanting more.

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“Being Earnest” runs through October 7th at Greater Boston Stage Company. For tickets visit www.greaterbostonstage.org or contact the Box Office at (781) 279-2200. Greater Boston Stage Company is located at 295 Main Street in Stoneham, MA.