Place. Play. Performance.
When all three P’s are there, a night at the theater can turn into magic, and that’s what you get at "Ernest in Love" that opened at In Tandem Theatre Friday night.
The play, a musical version of Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners "The Importance of Being Earnest," has book and lyrics by Anne Croswell and music by Lee Pockriss. It was first produced in 1960 and was greeted with resounding critical applause.
This production, a cooperative effort of In Tandem and Milwaukee Opera Theatre, succeeded under the creative and intelligent direction of Jane Flieller. It is a frothy bit of charm that had an opening night audience howling with laughter and smiling over songs they had probably never heard before.
"Ernest in Love" is true to the twists and turns of Wilde’s play. It’s the story of two couples: Algernon and Cecily, and Jack and Gwendolen. Most people have seen the play at some time in their lives and know the story.
Jack wants to marry Gwendolen, who thinks he’s really Ernest, a brother Jack invented. Algernon falls for Cecily, who thinks he’s Ernest, as well. Confusion reigns as the Wilde play has ins and outs and enough mystery for a couple of Agatha Christie outings. And it all ends happily.
The success of this production is, truly, a fulfilling of all the P’s.
First, there is the play. It’s hard to go wrong with Wilde and his famous, oft-produced comedy. And the new book and music remain in touch with Wilde, keeping his characters and all of their foibles in place.
Second is the place. The intimacy of In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theatre is perfect for this bit of cotton candy. There is no need for sound augmentation, and the music from David Bonofiglio on piano, Tatiana Pearson on flute and Nolan Thomas on clarinet is clear and captivating.
Finally, there is the performance.
This is a cast full of talent and musical and acting chops that are as top flight as any you are likely to see on any stage in Milwaukee.
Any discussion of performance has to start with Angela Iannone, the spectacular actor who plays Lady Bracknell, mother to Gwendolen and guardian of all that is proper about the English. Proving once again that there is no role beyond her incredible reach, she is priceless as the staunch protector of her daughter and arbiter of all that a mannerly society should be.
When this woman is on a stage, it and all she surveys is at her command. Every time I see Iannone, I continue to marvel at her incredible set of skills. Her turn with Jack in the song "Handbag" may well be the funniest musical number you will see in many a year.
She is not alone, though, in this production.
Doug Clemons, who was wonderful in "The Story of My Life" earlier this season, takes Algernon to smooth and silken heights that is reminiscent of Marcus Truschinski's turn in the role at American Players Theatre two seasons ago. Clemons can sing with the best of them and always delivers a performance both precise and full of wonder.
He was joined by Zachary Thomas Woods who took Jack to the outer limits without going overboard. Jack is a difficult role, caught somewhere between urchin and aristocrat, and Woods caught all of it easily.
The two ladies, Kristin Hammargren who played Gwendolen and newcomer Peyton Oseth who played Cicely, were as different as night and day while remaining under the same cloak of the proper.
Hammargren is a soprano with a special kind of emotive ability that finds its way into her songs. Hammargren was calculated in her desire to move from under the suffocating wing of her mother so that she might marry her Ernest. She is a woman in full bloom.
Oseth, a recent graduate from the musical theater program at UWM, caught all that an 18 year old who desperately wants to be in love needed. She sings like an angel and has an obvious spirit about her that is not to be ignored. She mixes Cecily's inexperience and naivety with her determination to become a woman – now!
The rest of the cast, in smaller roles, all matched the leading actors in skills and delivery. Rarely do you see a musical cast where there is such a level playing field.
A huge part smoothness of that has to go to Flieller's credit as a thoughtful and careful director and multi-talented James Zager, who did the choreography and kept things moving along. But there is also the unmistakable hand of Jill Anna Ponasik, who is the Artistic Director at MOT.
Ponasik is a daring woman who helps guide a musical cast into the kind of song that has meaning and that wrings the emotion (humor, sadness, anger) out of an audience. She grows in each show she does, and her role as assistant director in this production, is both obvious and valued.
This is the final show of the season for In Tandem, its 18th season. And they are going out with a bang that is not to be missed.
"Ernest in Love" runs through May 15 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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