A Musical, The Importance of Being

I’ve just seen & heard the Toronto Operetta Theatre’s production of Earnest, The Importance of Being, a recent adaptation of Wilde’s play of (almost) the same name.  It was premiered in 2008 by TOT, music by Victor Davies and book by Eugene Benson, a work that I believe deserves to be heard.

The title isn’t just a playful departure from the original.  One of the wonderful things about E,IB as I’ll call it, is how it literally leads with the names.  You may recall that in Wilde’s play –as in this musical work—the drama revolves around the names.  Young Algernon and Young Jack are pursuing Cecily  and Gwendolyn.  They both want someone named “Ernest”.  The discomfort each woman expresses with the other names become exquisite scat, tortured exploration of the sounds of “Algernon” or “Algie”, or “Jack”.  If it’s a truism that a musical begins where words leave off, expressing what can’t merely be said but must be sung, then this central conceit of the play requires music.  I think that raises the stakes, making the transformation from spoken into sung something organic.

There’s a magical moment near the end when Miss Prism tells her story, something that sounds like a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan. That’s what Anna Russell would have told us, and it’s as though Benson and Davies heard her funny bit describing how to write a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.   She tells us about “Dandelion, the large fat contralto with a voice like a foghorn”.  No, Rosalind McArthur is not fat nor does she have a voice like a foghorn (much nicer than that actually!) , but otherwise Benson & Davies follow Anna Russell’s Gilbert & Sullivan template.  Listen to this roughly 1:20 into the excerpt which comes right after the “madrigal”: which come to think of it, ALSO turns up after a fashion in Benson and Davies’s E,IB.  After the madrigal, Miss Prism–just like Anna Russell’s fictitious Dandelion– enters and makes a confession “assisted by the chorus.”

Forgive me if this seems to make light of their achievement.  But part of the brilliance of their version is precisely in the references to what has come before, in alluding to forms & practices to suggest a period and its culture.  Benson & Davies mostly hit the mark.

But excuse me if I mislead you.  E,IB is an eclectic work drawing on several influences. At times I think I hear Romberg alongside the G & S, and sometimes we venture elsewhere, such as a curious ensemble that is like a debate between a can-can (as Cecily confesses her fascination with Paris) and a tango (as everyone else speaks not of Madrid but Birmingham… okay I don’t see why it’s a tango but it sounded great nonetheless.  I am sure Director Guillermo Silva-Marin loved it. And if it sounds good let’s forget about any silly purist notions of how the work should be done. You won’t hear any stipulations from me).

In writing such a review I have to balance my response to the original work –the composition, the adaptation, and the questions of genre—vs the performances and interpretation.  One wonders if one is seeing something that departs from the text and reflects the input of the performers and/or director, or are we seeing something true to the work as written?  And I second-guess, wondering a pair of what-ifs: what if it were written/composed differently, and what if it were performed/interpreted differently.

I believe this work deserves to be heard at a venue such as the Shaw Festival.  But I think the work I heard would be better served by musical-theatre specialists, by performers less intent on singing beautifully (as these were opera singers for the most part), than on being understood.  At times we were hearing fewer than 50% of the lines, which is sad when the chunks of text I did hear were so brilliant.  If it were up to me –and haha in a moment you’ll see why it shouldn’t be up to me—I’d use a smaller band, to make it easier for the singers to be heard, or –as in most musicals nowadays—bite the bullet and use amplification.  I am not a purist, I’m a pragmatist, and I would argue by the way that if Wagner were alive today he’d be the first to advocate amplification, considering that he did the best he could in 1876, by covering the pit at Bayreuth.  While the singing is often stunningly beautiful, the impulse to make a big beautiful sound leads us into a place where lines are unclear.  This is why sub / surtitles are used even for operas in English and might be a welcome addition here.

Clearest pronunciation of the night?  I think it was Jean Stillwell as Lady Bracknell.  I was struck by the thought that she probably looks far more believable than many playing the part, given that the dowager portrayal we sometimes get  (especially thinking of the impersonation by someone like William Hutt) is a handy thing when you’ve got mature actors as Algie & Jack (say in their 40s?) requiring a Lady Bracknell who is completely past it, but must look believably older.  But if the men are as youthful as Cam McPhail and Thomas Macleay? Then Lady Bracknell can be a handsome mature woman, which is what we had with Stillwell.  Forgive me for sounding sexist, but I think there’s additional electricity if for a change Lady Bracknell is beautiful, rather than grotesque.  Stillwell still has star power and her every entrance was aided and abetted by a powerful signature tune from Davies & the orchestra.

Baritone Cameron McPhail

Baritone Cameron McPhail

Macleay and McPhail are an attractive pair with contrasting voices.  Michelle Garlough as Gwendolen and Charlotte Knight as Cecily were stylish in their approach to the comedy, Knight adding lots of delightful coloratura.   Gregory Finney as Canon Chasuble was very pointed in his delivery of his many punch-lines, his warm baritone a welcome addition to the ensembles.

And so, enjoyable as the evening was, the work deserves a chance to be treated not as operetta –that is a funny crossover hybrid where opera singers speak and sing with big opera voices–but an actual musical.  Is that what they wrote and how it should be performed? You tell me, as i think “musical” is as vague and undefined a word as “opera” or “operetta”. We learn ultimately be experimentation, workshops, different approaches.  Among musicologists operetta = musical.  But is there a difference?  I think it’s in emphasis, which is to say, the approach by the performers. Give the piece to a group who can make it as truly brilliant as what was written. Thank you Guillermo & TOT for birthing the baby, nurturing and bringing the work to life; now let it fly out of its nest to find its true home.

Shaw Festival, are you listening?

And one last thought, namely for Conductor Larry Beckwith, who kept the whole eclectic mix going, leading the small TOT orchestra and cast with great clarity & integrity, faithfully serving the score above all.  E,IB has two more performances Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the St Lawrence Centre.

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2 Responses to A Musical, The Importance of Being

  1. Lori Davies says:

    Thank you Leslie for such a positive and insightful analysis and review of Earnest, The Importance of Being. Like you, I always thought that Lady Bracknell should be beautiful otherwise how could she ‘catch a Lord”. One only has great admiration for all involved who managed to pull this off so successfully with only 10 days of rehearsal, and the 4 nights with orchestra and audience, in such a live concert hall, and not a legit theatrical stage. At that Guillermo Silva Marin is a master. You are right, with the rehearsal time and legit stage for which it was written, such as Shaw, the ‘musical/operetta’ would fair better musically, and allow the rhythm and timing of the text to be even more infectious to the audience. Performances continued to improve by the 4th performance. They all did a incredible job and it showed their commitment and determination to do so. Canada is chock a block full of so many talented performers! Both Victor Davies & Eugene Benson were delighted to see their little 5 character chamber comic opera as a workshop with Strattford Summer Music become a full pledged production again.
    Your always enthusiastic comments, and support.were much appreciated.
    Warmest regards,

    • barczablog says:

      Forgive me if i may have sounded harsh but theatre is one huge ongoing conversation, each subsequent interpretation, adaptation, faithful reproduction, wild parody, each any every response adds ultimately to our knowledge & understanding of that work and all that follow (if we’re truly listening). Wherever Earnest goes it can find a home. Music sometimes can puzzle us (witness Against the Grain’s Death/Desire, which presents a whole new series of solutions to both Schubert & Messiaen), as we mayonly figure out how to stage a show (musical, opera, operetta) after numerous attempts. Some composers only find their audience decades after. Hopefully this work will get its chances.

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