In review: Earnest, the Importance of Being l-r: Michelle Garlough as Gwendolyn and Charlotte Knight as Cecily. Photo by Gary Beechey.

In review: Earnest, the Importance of Being

Jenna Simeonov

Last night I went to opening night of Earnest, the Importance of Being at Toronto Operetta Theatre. The piece, by Victor Davies and Eugene Benson, had its premiere in 2008. It’s a rare thing to find an original Canadian operetta, and this one is a hilarious and charming take on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

The dialoge is taken directly from Wilde, and the sung libretto by Eugene Benson is an organic extension of the original text, full of Wilde-esque plays on words and really dry wit. The music itself takes a lot from the traditional operetta style, with funny pizzicato moments and soaring melodies; conductor Larry Beckwith led the orchestra with flexibility and fun. The moments of musical comedy were a bit surprising at times, like the pentatonic scales and gongs when there’s talk of Japan; I got the funny intent, it just seemed a bit dated for a piece less than ten years old.

Thomas Macleay and Charlotte Knight. Photo by Gary Beechey.

This cast is a strong one, featuring baritone Cameron McPhail as John Worthing, the dashing bachelor with a mysterious familial past. He sounded clear and rich in the theatre, using some of the show’s more lyric lines to his advantage. I thought he made a charming, charismatic “Earnest,” and a great foil in voice and mannerisms to his brother Algernon.

Tenor Thomas Macleay as Algernon was another idealistic young man in search of a wife, willing to change his name to suit her. He was a fantastic fit in this role, and he looked incredibly at home in the witty, silly, romantic style of the piece. He sang with a throaty, raw sound that was really appealing. He even threw in a few pretty falsetto touches.

The ladies were a hoot. Michelle Garlough was self-important and self-reverential as Gwendolyn Fairfax, set on marrying Earnest (provided his name really is Earnest). She managed to combine ditziness and self-respect into a hilarious woman who sets a high bar for her suitors. It was great to hear her in a more substantial role, and this wasn’t an easy one. Some of the trickiest vocal moments were also supposed to be funny, and I thought she nailed it.

Cameron McPhail and Michelle Garlough. Photo by Gary Beechey

Charlotte Knight was the younger, more shrill Cecily Cardew, set on marrying “Earnest,” or anyone else with a name that begins with “E” and ends in “T.” She had most of the vocal fireworks in the show, written impossibly high and repetitively. Charlotte did a spectacular job just singing the thing, plus she added all the comic cues to the most ridiculous of her cadenzas. She had whiny, brat-like moments that made me think of Jenna from 30 Rock. Her duet with Gwendolyn got the biggest applause of the night, and rightly so.

Jean Stilwell was a total force as Lady Bracknell. She sang with a huge, terrifying sound that matched her Maggie-Smith-like “formidable lady.” She had some of the best Wilde lines of the night and delivered them deliciously. Applause broke out as she first appeared, and I loved the Wagner-inspired chords announcing each of her entrances. I found it difficult to understand her all the time, but her intent was always clear.

Rosalind McArthur and Gregory Finney were appropriately hilarious as Miss Prism and Reverend Canon Chasuble. I got every single word from both of them, and they were those great characters that draw your eye despite the primary action happening centre stage. I thought Greg’s singing in this role was some of the best I’d heard him do. Bravo, friend!

Jean Stillwell. Photo by Gary Beechey.

The cast gave this piece the energy and specificity it needs. I thought the music tended to work against the singers, specifically in the way the English text is set. Much of time the text didn’t suit the line of the music, like the way “Earnest” so often fell with an accent on the last syllable. The singers weren’t thrown off by it, but I think it would have solved many of the problems of obscured text.

TOT Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin let the story unfold clearly, cleverly making use of mirror staging between the two sets of would-be lovers. I think the best stuff about this show lies in the solid cast and Oscar Wilde’s spectacularly funny play. The music highlights the right emotional moments, comic and otherwise, and it shows off the awesome Canadian talent onstage.

Earnest, the Importance of Being plays at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts until May 3rd. Follow the links below for tickets and more information.

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