By Gwen Rice Special to OnMilwaukee Published Dec 12, 2020 at 11:01 AM

Oscar Wilde’s classic farce “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a staple of school, community and professional stages because it is ridiculously witty and entertaining, a century after it was first penned. The self-consciously clever story is centered around stuffy societal norms just begging to be flouted; absurd, love-struck young people; mistaken identities; outrageous authority figures; and a sharp critique of the “decadent and shallow” idle class. It’s a literary and erudite sitcom that pits vivacious teens and 20-somethings against stodginess personified.

Normally it’s also a fun period piece, set at the turn of the 20th century, giving costume designers a sumptuous style to riff on and providing actors with heavily accented dialogue full of bon mots that sounds both sophisticated and preposterous. In Skylight Music Theatre’s current production, available for streaming through December 31, writers Paul Gordon (book, music and lyrics) and Jay Gruska (music) transport Wilde’s story to 1965 London on Carnaby Street – the center of fashion, music, art and the youth-driven cultural revolution that was the “Swinging Sixties.” 

This brings us to the first good reason to check out “Being Earnest”: 

The visual style

Costume coordinator Shima Orans injects the show with a vintage exuberance and cool color palate – groovy purples and hot pinks, lime greens and tangerines – along with a dose of flower power, bushy mop tops and bouffant hairstyles. The retro clothes match the tones of the color blocks that move across the screen like an animated Mondrian painting. Which brings us to ...

The video mix

This production of “Being Earnest” doesn’t just look good for a filmed theater production; it’s a fresh take on recorded performances during the COVID era. Director/artistic director Michael Unger states in his program notes that he wants to “lift the experience above the average Zoom call.” He definitely succeeds. With the help of video consultant Tyler Milliron, the entire show flows like a ’60s era music video, taking the floating heads in little black boxes that dominate a lot of virtual theater and turning those frames into a clever and colorful aesthetic.

In addition to dance breaks from other characters, the screen often includes stock photos of women, fashions, cars and icons of the period, although some pics appear to swing back to the ’50s and up to the ’70s. There are moments when the editing team gets a little carried away adding in every special effect on the board, but mostly it’s a fun way to keep the story moving.

The singing

In this production, Skylight also delivers on the voices. As the love interests who start as rivals and end as best friends, Ashley Oviedo (Cecily) and Stephanie Staszak (Gwendolyn) let their mini skirts and gogo boots do most of the emoting, but Staszak has a sweet, pretty voice, and Oviedo’s is more operatic. They harmonize easily in duets, as do Max Pink (Algernon) and Joey Chelius (Jack). As an ensemble and in solos, the group handles their singing parts with aplomb – very much in keeping with Skylight’s standards – which keeps the musical storytelling light and enjoyable. 

And finally, there’s ...

The varlet, Algernon

Local wunderkind Max Pink imbues this rakish role with a delightful blend of mischievous energy and self indulgence, stealing nearly every scene. He stands out from the cast, clearly reveling in his playboy part, and handling both the English accent and the original bits of Wilde’s text with the greatest felicity. Singing, speaking, plotting, scheming or flirting, Pink’s Algernon is enchanting. 

Despite all these undeniable points in its favor, ““Being Earnest”” does hit a few sour notes. Unsurprisingly, the filled-in dialogue and lyrics for the songs suffer greatly in comparison to the lines that are taken directly from the original script. And for a production that’s intent to situate itself in the mid-’60s, the compositions could not sound less inspired by the pop stars at the time. There are a few verbal references to the hits “Georgie Girl,” “Ruby Tuesday” and “Ticket to Ride.” But there’s nothing compositionally that even approaches the three chord magic of The Hollies, The Seekers, or Herman’s Hermits, who all topped the British singles chart at that time. 

In the end, “Being Earnest” sacrifices substance for style, and only nails the look of the “swinging sixties,” not the sound. This kind of attention to looks above all else fits perfectly with the philosophy of that scamp Algernon, but his attitude is constructed for amusement, not as something to emulate. Still, Skylight's production offers more than meets the eye for a virtual show.