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A Successful New Work from Toronto Operetta Theatre

Jane Mallet Theatre
02/22/2008 -  and 23 & 24 February
Victor Davies: Earnest, the Importance of Being
Laird MacKintosh (Algernon Moncrieff), Robert Longo (John Worthing), Barbara Barsky (Lady Bracknell), Mia Lennox-Williams (Gwendolen), Deanna Hendricks (Cecily), Heather Shaw (Miss Prism), Michael York (Rev. Chasuble), Sean Curran (Lane), Keith O'Brien (Merryman)

Guillermo Silva-Marin (Stage Director, Lighting Design and Set Decor)

Jeffrey Huard (Conductor)

Toronto Operetta Theatre (TOT) has been in operation since 1985. For their 50th production they have presented a world premiere and what they claim is the first new Canadian operetta in 100 years: Earnest, The Importance of Being. Wilde’s play (which must be the most frequently performed English-Language play from the 19th century) has received other musical adaptations, including one I saw in 1993, Ernest, with music by Brian Jackson. That production was billed as a play with music: the script was somewhat edited and interspersed with songs. Davies’ and Benson’s new treatment truncates the spoken dialogue severely in places, with a good deal more emphasis on the musical numbers. There are no cucumber sandwiches in Act I and no tea (or sugar) for Gwendolen and Cecily in Act II. The roles of Miss Prism and Reverend Chasuble are notably shortened.

Victor Davies is a fluent and skilled composer in the operetta/musical theatre idiom and Eugene Benson has a track record as librettist and playwright. Operetta is the right description for the work (vs. musical) as it requires the players to sing without microphones (and without surtitles) in a venue that seats about 400. They were accompanied by an orchestra of 11 players under the assured direction of Jeffrey Huard. With 20-odd musical numbers, the running length (with one intermission) is two and a half hours.

The piece was workshopped in 2005 by Stratford Summer Music, a process that culminated in a concert performance. Among the sponsors of this initial full production is the Embassy of Ireland.

Some of the musical numbers take a phrase or idea from the play and go off on a bit of a tangent. When Algernon sings You Cannot Change Your Name to Jack, the music and lyrics take us to Japan (a nod to The Mikado here - coincidentally the next TOT production), Hindustan and Spain. Lady Bracknell and her daughter sing We are the Aristocracy and it becomes a display of Union Jack-waving. The most successful number is To Speak with Perfect Candour when Gwendolwn and Cicely come to the (mistaken) realization that they are engaged to the same man, a number in which lines of song are interspersed to great effect with some of Wilde’s choicest spoken lines.

Another choice moment comes with the use of C of E plainchant when baptism is discussed (Both Sprinkling and Immersion).

There’s not a weak link in the cast and, especially when one considers the brevity of the run. Laird MacKintosh gave a truly outstanding performance as Algernon. It was announced that Mia Lennox-Williams had a sore throat which might account for the occasional deficiency in volume. However, her delivery of spoken lines was delectable, revealing a mix of both hauteur and vulnerability. Deanna Hendricks is a rapidly evolving young performer with the looks of the teenage Elizabeth Taylor and a voice capable of crystalline coloratura.

Barbara Barsky and Heather Shaw play the two older women in the cast. I don’t want to sound ungallant, but: while I am sure they are approximately the right age for the roles, they don’t look as old as women of that age looked in the 1890s. A bit of grey hair would not have been out of place. As it stands, they are more like the women referred to in the play who have, of their own choice, remained thirty-five for years.

As well as a strong cast, the presentation had terrific production values. The well-chosen costumes were from Malabar, the local treasure house of costumes from any period you can name, and the stage decor (especially for the flower-bedecked country scenes) was spot-on. Guillermo Silva-Marin’s direction had the right sort of flair without being intrusively busy; the reconciliation between Gwendolen and Cecily got a round of delighted applause.

It is impossible to predict what the staying power of this piece might be. It is hard to imagine it being taken up by a commercial producer and given a long and hopefully profitable run. There are many summer theatre venues that perform musical theatre, but they might be hard-pressed to assemble a cast strong enough to bring it off.

It would be unfortunate if the work’s history ended with this short TOT run.

Michael Johnson



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