Shortly before his death, Sir NoŽl Coward was asked to give his idea of a perfect life. Without hesitation, he replied "Mine." As this year marks the centennial of that paragon's birth, theater companies all over the world are celebrating the event with revivals of his works. Since NoŽl Coward wrote over 60 plays, including Blithe Spirit, Private Lives and Present Laughter, over 300 songs, and several books of poetry, memoirs and diaries, there is plenty of material from which to choose.
Seattle Repertory Theatre starts its celebration with Oh, Coward!, a revue of songs and writings by the English genius, who got his start writing similar revues during the Jazz Age. Oh, Coward! was fashioned by Roderick Cook, and opened Off-Broadway in 1972 and covers the broad spectrum of NoŽl Coward's work. The first act is devoted to his 'English Music Hall' years and style, and consists mainly of his trademark rapid-fire patter songs, such as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," "The Stately Homes of England," and "Has Anybody Seen our Ship?". The second act focuses on his sophisticated side, the Cafe Society parties, the setting for many of his plays, and contains songs like "Mad About the Boy," and "I Went to a Marvelous Party." The sets and costumes by Michael Olich perfectly set off this distinction, with the first act set and costumed in vibrant reds and painted drops, and the second act in tuxes and evening gowns of black and white.
Director Stephen Terrell, one of the busiest and most well thought of directors in Seattle (and who recently directed a revival of Redhead at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut), did a masterful job of finding the balance between wit and camp. He successfully brought out the humor and the pathos that exist in Coward's work, often times simultaneously, and made the songs and writings seem fresh and, most importantly, comprehensible to modern audiences, many of whom would be unfamiliar with the references contained in the songs. He also kept the evening moving at a brisk pace, much in keeping with the style of Sir Coward himself.
Of course, none of this means anything without a cast who can pull of the rapid-fire lyrics, the wry comic timing, and the emotional poignancy that NoŽl Coward's material requires. Luckily, Oh, Coward! contained three actors who were more than up for the challenge. The two men and one woman in Oh, Coward! handled the wordy songs and the ballads with ease, and gave the impression that they had been performing Coward's material for years. Local actor David Pichette gave one the more entertaining performance that I have seen, the highlight being a superb "I Went to a Marvelous Party," in which he traces a poor partygoer from blistering hangover/morning after, to raring to hit another fabulous soiree (through the aid of no small dose of 'hair of the dog'). Joel Carlton, seen Off-Broadway in Jeffrey and Annie Get Your Gun and in the world premier of Paramour at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego made an almost perfect faux-Coward, looking and acting like he came from one of NoŽl's extravaganzas. Most of his numbers were with one of the other performers, and I wish he had been given a solo ballad, as he was wonderful in capturing the style and air of NoŽl Coward.
The highlight of the evening was Patti Cohenour, fresh from playing the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music on Broadway and returning to the Music Hall style of Drood. Singing more lyrics in her first number than she had in the entire part of the Abbess, Patti proved she is more than a ballad singer, and should be given the chance to explore darker and more complex characters. Watching her perform "The End of the News" in a flawless cockney accent made me wish someone would give her a chance to play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and her rendition of Mad About the Boy showed glimpses of what she could have done with Norma Desmond. Seeing her, cocktail and cigarette in hand, uttering a certain four-letter expletive that (for decency's sake) shall remain unreported, blew away all images of her as the Abbess, Rosa Budd, or Christine.
Rounding out the evening was an excellent combo helmed by music director, Mark Rabe. The balance between singers and orchestra was near perfect, and the singers only needed minimal miking. It was a treat to hear 'live' singers performing largely unfiltered by mechanical amplification, especially three master interpreters of a master word- and tune-smith like NoŽl Coward.
Oh, Coward! runs at the Seattle Repertory Theatre through April 4th. For tickets call the box office at (206) 443-2222. You can also check out their website, www.seattlerep.org.