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Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 12, 2013

Absolutely perfect fun

'Emma' creator has another hit at TheatreWorks with 'Earnest'

by Jeanie K. Smith

The TheatreWorks recipe for a successful new musical: Take one brilliant comedy that has withstood the test of time, toss in catchy tunes with charming and witty lyrics to match the script, and cast it with wonderful singer-actors perfectly suited to their roles. Add an inventive set and eye-popping period costumes, and voila: You'll have a thoroughly enjoyable evening's entertainment, and a hit show.

TheatreWorks has done it again, bringing to fruition a budding musical spotlighted at its 2012 New Works Festival and staging the newly developed work superbly well. Composer-lyricist Paul Gordon (known to local audiences for previous hits "Emma" and "Daddy Long Legs") and Grammy- and Emmy-nominated composer Jay Gruska have concocted an update of the venerable comic masterpiece "The Importance of Being Earnest," by Oscar Wilde. Setting the story in 1965 London, with the backdrop of mod fashion, rock music and shifting morality, Gordon and Gruska wisely keep a significant percentage of Wilde's original dialogue, yet manage to augment and enhance it with delightful songs.

The wacky Wildean plot has two young men, Jack Worthing (Hayden Tee) and Algernon Moncrieff (Euan Morton), posing as other than themselves and using the name "Earnest" in order to woo lovely young women, Gwendolen Fairfax (Mindy Lym) and Cecily Cardew (Riley Krull). Gwen's mum, Lady Bracknell (Maureen McVerry), negates Jack's proposal of marriage when he appears to have less than stellar parentage. In turn, Jack will make his ward, Cecily, into an old maid and Algy a professional bachelor if he can't have Gwendolen.

When all meet at Jack's country estate, including slightly odd governess Miss Prism (Diana Torres Koss) and slightly randy Reverend Chasuble (Brian Herndon), various truths come spilling out — of the handbag, so to speak. Whether you're unfamiliar with the play or you've seen it dozens of times, you're in for a treat with the staging of the final reveal.

It's hard to imagine songs complementing Wilde's urbane wit, but these provide musical interludes sure to please the master comedian himself, with a light sentiment and sweet romantic touches.

Gwendolen's ode to the name Earnest, "Age of Ideals," appeals with wit and with Lym's saucily flawless delivery. Algernon's adoring ballad of "Cecily" reveals his new heart in a dreamy endorsement of love. "Absolutely Perfect" unites Morton and Krull in a charmingly funny duet, later reprised to great comic effect by McVerry. The musical motif first introduced in "No Romance" by the two young men becomes familiar and catchy by the end; you'll find yourself humming it after.

"Absolutely Perfect" might also be sung about this cast — not a weak link among them. They're all so well-matched to their roles, with terrific vocals in addition to obvious comedic skills. Morton's velvety voice particularly stands out, and he has numerous opportunities to shine. Lym's smooth, liquid delivery at first hides the lovely surprise of her humorous abilities, and she and Krull do great justice to the famous Cecily-Gwendolen garden scene. Krull's youthful brashness as Cecily comes across in her vivacious vocals and endearing demeanor.

Tee, playing the more conservative of the men, is no less attractive with solid voice and droll expressions. Torres Koss and Herndon add delicious color and comedy in their roles as well as strong ensemble vocals.

Joe Ragey's gorgeous set morphs into various locales rather effortlessly, establishing a familiar mid-century British context. Fumiko Bielefeldt's mod costumes are another character unto themselves; they're fun and memorable. Musical direction by William Liberatore and sound design by Jeff Mockus achieve a near-perfect balance of instrumentation and voices — no easy feat with amplified instruments. Kudos to director Robert Kelley for bringing it all together in such smart staging.

You may want to see this one more than once before it takes Broadway by storm. It's great fun, and great humor, and adds up to a terrific evening. In Act Two, the authors pay homage to Wilde himself with insertions of his famous witticisms, and projections of Wilde seem somehow appropriate. He would no doubt approve of the ending projections; don't rush too quickly for the exit.

What: "Being Earnest," a new musical based on the play by Oscar Wilde; book & lyrics by Paul Gordon, music by Paul Gordon & Jay Gruska; presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Through April 28, with shows at 7:30 pm Tuesdays & Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturday & Sunday; and 7 p.m. Sundays

Cost: Tickets are $23-$73.

Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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