It is of no surprise that homage is paid to the remarkable Sir Noel Peirce Coward. As well as writing over fifty published plays, Noel Coward also wrote comic revues, poetry, several volumes of short stories, three volumes of autobiography and the novel Pomp and Circumstance. The best known of his plays is undoubtedly Blithe Spirit, which broke box-office records for a West End comedy not beaten until the 1970s, and was later made into a film directed by David Lean. He was also a prolific writer of popular songs and is perhaps best known for "Let's Do It," which he wrote with Cole Porter. Coward's other most popular hits include the romantic "I'll See You Again," "If Love Were All" and "Mad About the Boy", as well as the comic "Mad Dogs and Englishmen, "I've Been To A Marvelous Party" and "(Don't Put Your Daughter On The Stage) Mrs. Worthington." He was a man well known for his talent, dry wit and effervescent energy.
Much of Noel Coward's wit and style is preserved in A Marvelous Party. The show weaves in wonderful Coward quotes and anecdotes amongst the songs and skits. Some of his comedic writing, however, is period enough to feel dated with the passage of time. In his own words: "Comedies of manners swiftly become obsolete when there are no longer any manners." And so a compilation of his works must be handled with an eye to the contemporary audience. Because of this, there are portions of the show that are tedious rather than entertaining. Note that the audience adored the newly written additional verses of "Let's Do It" which are so clever because they are current. Perhaps this treatment can be further explored. The show really should begin with "I've Been To a Marvelous Party" and end with something comedically energetic such as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." The lengthy section of the first act entitled "The Coconut Girl" needs to be cut entirely. If the show is shortened by this, it would be to preserve its quality rather than length. After all, in the words of Noel Coward: "Wit is like caviar - it should be served in small portions and not spread about like marmalade."
The set design by Bill Forrester at the Florida Stage is handsome and elegant in royal blues and golds. The second act of the show is well lit, but the first act has some weak lighting moments with a dead space center stage. The show features a three-member cast with a three-piece combo of musicians. The two men in the cast do some double duty as they take turns playing on-stage piano bits, as well as sing and dance. Mark Anders beautifully embodies the spirit of Noel Coward in his comic timing as well as his suddenly tender singing. His "Someday I'll Find You" is a sweet surprise alongside his broad and funny "I've Been To A Marvelous Party." Stephanie Morse has a look and sound very right for this period of music. Her lovely voice is clear and controlled, and she does an exemplary job with the exhausting "The Coconut Girl." She regrettably favors control over emotion in the "Mad About the Boy," however, missing so much of the potential of this song. Though she is elegantly clad in the second act, her dress in the first act is pretty dreadful. With such light costuming duties, it is hard to understand how costume designer David Kay Mickelson could have missed the boat. Jeffrey Rockwell is fine on patter songs and does a nice job with "If Love Were All." However, he too frequently shows rough edges in held notes, occasionally generalizes his pitches, and is the weakest in the harmony sections. An asset to this show is the maturity of the performers, as this is a piece requiring actors with seasoning, and it is always a treat to see new faces on one of our local professional stages.
Born on December 16, 1899, Noel Coward was the second of three sons born to a middle-class family in Teddington, Middlesex. Coward made his professional debut at age eleven, and went on to perform and apprentice with Victorian actor and comedian Sir Charles Hawtrey until the age of twenty. Coward idolized Hawtrey, and it was from him that Coward learned his comic acting techniques and playwriting. Coward's insights into the class system can be traced back to London life in World War I, when thousands of troops passed through the capital every day, and gay officers and other-ranks would meet together with civilians in dozens of highly secret clubs. He enjoyed a 19-year relationship with Prince George, Duke of Kent, and another lengthy one with actor Graham Payn for almost thirty years until the end of Coward's life. Publicly, Coward refused to acknowledge his homosexuality, wryly stating, "There is still a woman in Paddington Square who wants to marry me, and I don't want to disappoint her." Following his last play in 1966 A Suite in Three Keys and the 1969 film The Italian Job, Coward retired to Jamaica due to illness. He was knighted in 1970 and died in March 26, 1973, of heart failure at the age of 73. On March 28, 1984, his memorial was unveiled in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey by England's Queen Mother.
Noel Coward rose to success in 1924 on the heels of the controversy surrounding his play The Vortex, which contains many veiled references to both drug abuse and homosexuality, and made Coward an overnight sensation. Much of Coward's best work came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Enormous, popular, lavish large-scale productions such as the full-length operetta Bitter Sweet, and Cavalcade (for which he won a Best Picture Oscar in 1932) were interspersed with finely wrought comedies such as Private Lives, in which Coward himself starred alongside his most famous stage partner Gertrude Lawrence, and the black comedy Design For Living in 1932, written for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
When the second World War started, a patriotic Noel Coward took time off from writing to perform for the troops. Alongside his highly publicized tours entertaining Allied troops, Coward was also engaged by the British Secret Service to conduct intelligence work. Had the Germans invaded Britain, Noel Coward would have been arrested and liquidated for being a covert operative as he was on The Black Book. During this time, he was often frustrated by criticism he faced for his ostensibly glamorous lifestyle. Yet he was unable to defend himself against scorn for living the high life while his countrymen suffered without revealing details of his work for the Secret Service. When he complained to his frequent painting companion Winston Churchill (Noel Coward was an avid painter, and books of his painting work have also been published), that he felt he wasn't doing enough to support the war effort, Churchill suggested he make a movie based on the career of Captain Lord Mountbatten. The result was a naval film drama, In Which We Serve, which Coward wrote, starred in, composed the music for and co-directed. The film was immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and Coward was awarded an honorary Oscar.
A Marvelous Party will be appearing at the Florida Stage through August 19, 2007. The theater is located in Plaza del Mar, at 262 S. Ocean Blvd. in Manalapan, FL. The Florida Stage is a professional theater, with extensive programs for young artists, hiring Equity and Non-Equity performers from across the United States. The Florida Stage is a member of the Theatre Communications Group, the League of Resident Theatres, the Florida Professional Theatre Association, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, and the National New Play Network. Performance days/times are normally Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:00 PM; and Sundays at 7:00 PM. Tickets and other information may be obtained by calling the box office at (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3833, or contacting them on line at www.floridastage.org.
* Designates member of Actors' Equity Association: the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
** Designates member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers.
+Designates member of the United Scenic Artists.
Cast Photo: By Susan Lerner Photography
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