Swinging ’60s ‘Being Earnest’ never quite lifts off
STONEHAM — To the creators of “Being Earnest,’’ a musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest’’ now receiving its East Coast premiere at Greater Boston Stage Company, it probably seemed perfectly logical to transpose the setting to the swinging London of the mid-1960s.
But what’s lost is Wilde’s sly subversion of the Victorian era’s social conventions and general hypocrisy. That’s what elevates the deliberate frivolity of his 1895 comedy of mistaken identity almost to the status of an aesthetic principle.
Take away that repressive backdrop, replace it with the anything-goes atmosphere of the Sixties, and transform Wilde’s fatuous young idlers into Carnaby Street mods, and you risk reducing his play to a flashback scene from an “Austin Powers’’ movie, albeit with much better dialogue. When Wilde’s irreverent spirit of rebellion seems in tune with the times rather than in opposition to them, his apercus can come across like preaching to the choir — and if there was anything Wilde abhorred, it was preachiness.
None of which is to say you can’t have a pretty good time at “Being Earnest,’’ directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins with her usual brio, her knack for expressing character through physical movement, and her sense of how to make a comic moment land.
The set by Nick Oberstein is a delirium of purple, orange, and aqua. Costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley clearly had a field day dreaming up and delivering evocative period attire, from miniskirts and white go-go boots to striped jacket and ascot. Hell, the sight of indispensable Boston actor Will McGarrahan playing a dour, cucumber-sandwich-toting butler in a Beatles-style moptop wig is itself almost worth the price of admission.
However, while it’s a pleasant-enough diversion, “Being Earnest’’ never quite achieves full liftoff, in part because the songs (music by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska, with lyrics and book by Gordon) seldom rise above the level of generic pop. There is nothing here to rival Gordon’s marvelous score for “Daddy Long Legs,’’ which was presented in 2012 at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
Still amusing, if overly familiar by now, are the deliberately counterintuitive Wildean aphorisms and witticisms that are sprinkled throughout “Being Earnest,’’ such as: “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing’’; “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means”; and “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.’’
“Being Earnest’’ retains much of the text of Wilde’s comedy, including the convoluted subterfuge that constitutes the play’s plot. A young gentleman named John Worthing (Dave Heard) has manufactured the existence of a dissolute brother named Ernest as an excuse to periodically slip away from his country home and go to London, where he visits his friend Algernon Moncrieff (a languidly entertaining Michael Jennings Mahoney).
On these trips to the city, John has managed to win the love of Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Sarah Coombs, very good) — due in no small part to John’s claim to be named Ernest. Why the deception? Because the fair Gwendolen fervently believes that moniker to be “the greatest of names,’’ the only one “that is worth my heart’s pursuit.’’ For his own reasons, Algernon assumes the identity of “Ernest’’ on a visit to John’s country home, where he finds himself smitten with his friend’s ward, Cecily Cardew (Ephie Aardema), and she with him. Cecily has long been intrigued by John’s tales of bad-boy Ernest. (She is under the supervision of a governess, Miss Prism, played by Kerry A. Dowling, who herself is smitten with Rev. Chasuble, portrayed by McGarrahan.)
So now there are two young women who are in love with a nonexistent Ernest — a thorny matter, especially when the women meet. Then there is the question of John’s parentage. He is an orphan who was left as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station, and Gwendolen’s daunting mother, Lady Bracknell (Beth Gotha), is determined to ensure that John is of respectable parents before granting him her daughter’s hand in marriage.
That is one of numerous moments in “Being Earnest’’ that are given an anachronistic ring by the musical’s 1965 setting. It’s probably best to just savor that Wildean wit. In our current grim environment, laughter is almost a political statement. That was probably true for the Victorians, too.
Music by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska. Book and lyrics by Gordon. From the play by Oscar Wilde. Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins. Music direction, Steve Bass.
Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham. Through Oct. 7. Tickets $50-$60. 781-279-2200, www.greaterbostonstage.org