Review: Earnest, the Importance of Being (Toronto Operetta Theatre)

Gwendolen & Cecily at Love SeatA silly, sparkling, Canadian operetta Earnest, the Importance of Being  returns to the Toronto stage

Earnest, the Importance of Being has at least one interesting historical distinction. Originally staged by the Toronto Operetta Theatre in 2008, it marks the first Canadian operetta to be produced in over 100 years. Based on Oscar Wilde’s classic play, The Importance of Being Earnest, the TOT is returning to Wilde’s rollicking comedy with a winning revival of their previous hit at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

Jack (Cameron McPhail) is ‘Jack’ in the country, but ‘Ernest’ in town. The deception is part of an elaborate ruse he’s concocted in order to carry out his bachelor lifestyle without hassle. Unfortunately, Jack’s fiancée Gwendolyn (Michelle Garlough) has always dreamed of marrying a man named Ernest, and considers any other name to be unacceptable in a husband.

Complicating matters is Jack’s incorrigible friend Algernon (Thomas Macleay), who poses as Ernest in order to meet Jack’s young ward, Cecily (Charlotte Knight), and promptly falls in love. The rest of the play deals with the fallout of having two Ernests with two fiancées thrown together in the same manor house, and the misunderstandings that occur as a result.

The Importance of Being Earnest is, by most accounts, a very silly play. That’s sort of the joy of it: everything is completely arbitrary, including attraction, love, identity, and most certainly marriage. The plot itself is a frothy delight, weaving webs of deception so hopelessly knotted that they all come apart in increasingly outrageous tangles.

All this is aptly translated into music with Victor Davies’ soaring, beautiful score and Eugene Benson’s clever book. While there seemed to be a bit of opening night roughness when it came to the speaking parts, the show positively sparkles vocally: there’s not a weak voice in the house, and it’s cleverly calculated to give every character their due time in the spotlight.

While both men are solid and able, it’s the women who get to have the most fun. Charlotte Knight as Cecily particularly shines with all the bright, sparkling energy of a young girl with big dreams and even bigger ambition. Knight’s Cecily is funny and girlish without being cloying, making a nice contrast to Michelle Garlough’s Gwendolyn, who is unapologetically candid and wonderfully likeable for it. Jean Stilwell also sings beautifully, though she plays Lady Bracknell a little too straight for my particular taste.

The charisma and wit of Wilde’s writing is most charmingly emulated through Cecily and Gwendolyn’s diva-versus-diva number, ‘When I Hear You Speak His Name’, wherein the two leading ladies practically hurl their huge-lunged vocals at one another in an effort to stake a claim on ‘the’ Ernest. Both Garlough and Knight sung the roof off, and their insane highs and gorgeous harmonies easily scored the most enthusiastic applause of the night.

While all of the music is gorgeous and tuneful, the transition between dialogue and music was occasionally a bit abrupt. The shift was always very pointed, and there were a few moments where I felt the movement between speaking and singing might have been a bit smoother.

Another minor quibble I had was that I felt that the blocking was a little busy at times. Often, characters will make arbitrary circles or move very obviously to certain positions on stage. It occasionally draws attention to its own constructed nature, and while that might fit thematically with the show, I don’t know if that was quite the intention.

My guest for the evening, it must be said, didn’t notice these things, so it’s possible that I’m just picking on a particular style of staging that I don’t much care for. She enjoyed it as much as I did, and even expressed a desire to seek out the play afterwards. The fact that both of us—an obsessive lover of Wilde’s work, and a complete newbie—had such a fun time together speaks to what a joy the show is overall, despite these minor issues.

While Earnest, the Importance of Being is not quite perfect, at the end of the night, my cheeks were hurting from smiling and laughing so much. I can’t think of a higher compliment for any comedy.


Photo of Michelle Garlough and Charlotte Knight by Gary Beechey.