The sharp jab at the crusty, Victorian era British upper crust in Ernest in Love, with Book and Lyrics by Anne Croswell, Music by Lee Pockriss, and directed by Rick Wade, is not too farfetched from today’s ongoing drama with the coddled, undertaxed One Percent.
In England’s late 1800s, every movement of the upper class nobility was governed by strict rules of behavior from what to wear and when to wear it, to when a woman could be seen in the company of a man.
Oscar Wilde was at his pinnacle of success when his Ernest made its stage debut – and it was quickly eclipsed by his slide, a few months later, into disgrace and imprisonment.
For a brief moment, critics hailed the show’s high farce and witty dialog, discreetly avoiding the biting social message he was sending about the artificiality of the rigid, frigid Victorian society.
The set and floor, designed by Edd Miller, was a source of fascination throughout the show. Within the confines of the black box, Miller created myriad shifting scenes with clever transformations of what appeared to be wooden boxes painted to resemble low brick walls. With a quick whisk, the bricks were covered with trompe l’oeil clothes that resembled chairs, elegant wooden tables, chaise lounges and, early on, a street of busy village shops.
The floor was sponge painted and hand-detailed with a sprawling abstract floral design. The black walls were brightened with cutouts of heart-shaped flower covered trellises, palm leaves, and sponge painted trees and fir trees.
Thanks to Frank A. Florentine, the audience was entertained during the musical’s prologue, with a neon pastel lightshow. Lights flickered from the ceiling – a ceiling that contained other surprises as the show progressed.
The design concepts for the cast’s costumes were evocative of the era. The men’s detachable wing tip collars were suggested by pulling up a modern shirt collar and pressing down the collar to form the wings. Their jackets were tailored and crisp.
The one sour note of the show was the costumes of the two young female leads, Jureckson and Wade, which were especially ill-fitting and poorly constructed. It was painful to look at the back view of Jureckson when she was wearing a lavender, lace lavished dress. The seams were bunchy and had never seen an iron. Ditto for the blue jacket she wears in the first act. The yellow dress Wade wore in the second act was a shapeless lemon mu-mu that did nothing to show off her curvy figure. Thankfully, her soaring voice and subtle acting helped to obscure the unflattering costuming.
The show opens with the man servants Perkins (Nick Beschen) and Lane (Greg Jones) moving through the marketplace. The vendors, including the Greengrocer (Greg Anderson), the Bootmaker (Doug Dillner) Piano Teacher and Dance Master (Heather Tuckfield), and Tobacconist (Rob Glass) – all complaining about the massive unpaid tabs run up by the listless upper class, many of whom didn’t work and felt no obligation to pay their debts.
Perkins and Lane lead the merchants – who did double duty as scene changers throughout the production – in “Come Raise Your Cup.”
“Come raise your cup to the upper classes, who we revere …Raise you cup to the rules to which they seldom adhere …”
Perkins and Lane grab some of the vendors’ offerings, including a basket of fresh vegetables and a pair of new leather boots.
“Put it on his tab,” they say as they depart.
The scene shifts to the flat of Ernest Worthing (Eric Hufford), who is planning to propose to Gwendolen Fairfax (Erica Jureckson). His main obstacle is her by-the-rulebook mother Lady Bracknell (Barbara Bartos).
At the same time, Gwendolen, sure Worthing will propose, is trying on hat after hat to find the right one for the occasion. She and her maid Alice (Natalie Nankervis) sing “The Hat” as they scurry to find the correct chapeau.
Quickly, we learn Ernest Worthing leads a double life.
He visits a friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Steven Baird), who uses the ruse of going frequently to the countryside to visit an imaginary ill friend named “Bunbury.”
Despite his own deceptive life, Moncrieff accuses Worthing of living a lie. He’s found Worthing’s cigarette case with an inscription saying it was given to “Uncle Jack Worthing” by “little Cecily.”
In the countryside, living with him is his ward Cecily Cardew (Sara Wade). Jack has told her “Ernest Worthing” is his dissolute older brother. When the countryside gets boring, Jack claims he must go deal with the wastrel “Ernest” in the city.
Intrigued, Moncriefrieff decides he wants to meet Cecily. Worthing will have none of that and refuses to tell him where his country house is located, and meanwhile, Lady Bracknell will not allow Gwendolyn to marry him.
This sets in motion a chain of events where all the main characters wind up at Worthing’s country estate.
The scene stealer in this show was Duncan Hood as Dr. Chasuble, an Anglican minister with evolving attitudes about celibacy. His sudden momentary shift, late in the play, to a reprise of his early military career brought the house down.
The show’s music was produced by Right on Cue Services in Utah. After a few minutes, though, one forgot the musicians were not in a nearby pit.
The acting and vocal performances, and comedic timing of Greg Jones, Eric Hufford, Erica Jureckson, Steven Baird, Duncan Hood and Sara Wade – especially Sara Wade – are excellent.
Jones, Hufford and Baird must have been Vaudeville comedians in an earlier incarnation. Their quick gestures and lightning fast movements were a delight to watch.
Ernest in Love at The Colonial Players in downtown Annapolis is a witty, intelligent and imaginative staging of the musical, which had its Off Broadway debut in 1960. As directed by Rick Wade and choreographed by Lindsay Zetter, the production is top-notch as is the cast.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.