If the name William S. Gilbert doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps you know him as half of Gilbert & Sullivan, the witty team whose operettas were hits in the late 19th century. But Gilbert didn’t just put together witty lyrics for Sir Arthur Sullivan’s tunes.
Before they joined forces to create popular musical works like H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert was a playwright in his own right. In fact, his 1877 comedy, Engaged, was a significant hit, which Gilbert himself directed. It’s Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s summer production, opening this week.
The farcical comedy follows the amusing adventures of Cheviot Hill, a wealthy young man who falls in love with every woman he meets and proposes marriage to many of them. He has a fair-weather friend trying to keep him single so as to inherit Hill’s chum’s estate.
It gets more complicated and amusing — not unlike the hilarity in Oscar Wilde’s delightful 1895 comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, similarly full of eccentric characters and unlikely plot twists.
In fact, it’s commonly believed that Wilde’s comic masterpiece was inspired by Gilbert’s play. It has a similar humorous style and borrows several of the “topsy-turvy” plot twists that Gilbert originated.
Writing about a 2004 revival of Engaged in New York City, critic Michael Feingold suggested that, “To see (Engaged) onstage is to watch The Importance of Being Earnest discovering its long-lost father, and the works of Nol Coward their dashing, bewhiskered granddad.”
Indeed, Cincinnati Shakespeare has had great success with Earnest (in 2001), in addition to Coward’s Private Lives in 2005. Perhaps it’s time to go back to the original inspiration for these charming comedies.
According to Cincinnati Shakespeare’s artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips, “We wanted to offer our audiences a featherlight comedy that they might not have seen before but will fall in love with immediately.”
The production is directed by Jeremy Dubin directs the production, which features CEA nominee Rob Jansen as Cheviot Hill, the chronically romantic young man.
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