Algernon sports a lilac Nehru jacket. Gwendolen kicks up her red go-go boots. Jack smokes a little reefer.
Everyone is the height of mod in TheatreWorks' new swinging '60s musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska have transported the 19th-century comedy smack dab into the Austin Powers era, that glam-meets-groovy period just before the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. If some of the liberties taken with the narrative seem a bit too wacky -- and purists will doubtless be scandalized -- there's no denying the verve and buoyancy of this circa-1965 "Earnest" in its world premiere.
Certainly, a sense of humor is quite in keeping with this glittering 1895 jewel, which is, after all, subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People." Lest we forget, Brian Bedford once famously played the iconic grande dame Lady Bracknell to great acclaim. If the raucous '60s vibe doesn't always jibe with this comic masterpiece, "Being Earnest" still has scads of cheek and charm, with Robert Kelley's whimsical direction adding shine to a clever, if uneven, reinvention of the Victorian classic.
Corsets and bustles are out, and Twiggy couture is in, as the eligible bachelors Algernon Moncrieff (Euan Morton) and his BFF, Jack Worthing (Hayden Tee), go about wooing everything in a miniskirt striding down Carnaby Street.
Gordon (a Tony nominee for "Jane Eyre") and Gruska have crafted a melodic score filled with pithy lyrics and catchy refrains. If there are too many songs slowing down the pace at the start, there are also some real gems such as the delightful ode to Earnest, "Age of Ideals." And "Brothers," delivered with wry panache by Morton and Tee, is another winner. Some of the songs ("Horrid German Nouns") are a little forgettable, however, which flattens the effervescence this champagne cocktail of a play demands.
Fortunately, the cast has enough ebullience to smooth out some of the rough spots. Morton nimbly brings a Dudley Moore-style flippancy to Algie, and Tee has a nicely priggish demeanor. Brian Herndon elicits laughs in a series of small roles played with daffy accents, from the butler to the reverend.
But there's still not quite enough sparkle when the lads match wits with their love interests, big city girl Gwendolen (Mindy Lym) and naive country lass Cecily (Riley Krull). The cucumber sandwiches ought to hit the fan when both Algie and Jack pretend to be a much-admired chap named Earnest. But the chuckles come in fits and starts, and the high jinks don't tickle as readily as they should.
While it's a hoot watching the ladies gad about in smashing Mondrian dresses, and the score deftly reminds us of the anthems of the '60s, not all of the characters make sense in the time of "That Girl." Sadly, the incomparable Lady Bracknell loses something in the translation. The ne plus ultra of the dowager ethos, she should be, "a monster, without being a myth." As played by Maureen McVerry, she's far too warm and attractive to be a gorgon. Bracknell should be a good bit more brackish to strike fear into the hearts of these youngsters.
Her glances should scorch like dragon fire, and she should be able to silence a room with a single arched eyebrow. McVerry makes quite a glamorous figure in her flowing Douglas Sirk-style movie ensembles, and she's got a saucy way with a punch line, but she doesn't make Bracknell formidable.
In this incarnation, her remarks are quite funny but never damning -- a pity, given the immortal insults she sculpts. Consider one of the most famous: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness." With such bon mots, who needs daggers?
Still, it's hard to resist Wilde in any guise, and "Earnest" wisely shows off quotes from outside the play at hand. That fondness for the master of epigrammatic wit gives the whole enterprise a lightness that's as refreshing as the utterly ridiculous epilogue. For all its faults, it's a jolly good show.
Music by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska, book and lyrics by Gordon, adapted from
the play by Oscar Wilde
Through: April 28
Where: TheatreWorks, Mountain View Center
for the Performing Arts,
500 Castro St.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $31-$73; 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org