West Coast Florida
A Marvelous Party!
Matthew McGee, a local treasure, plays the material that is best done in the style of its originator: droll and debonaire. (Look for him in an upcoming American Stage production of Around the World in 80 Days done story theater stylehe should be hysterical.) Besides his many comic moments, McGee is very effective performing "If Love Were All" ("I believe that since my life began, the most I've had is just, a talent to amuse"). Larry Alexander, handsome, sophisticated and charming, balances McGee with his romantic lyric baritone. A highlight of the entire performance is his beautifully sung "Matelot," one of my favorite Coward songs. He also gets "I've Been to a Marvelous Party," which he turns into an increasingly drunken tour de force, and "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," which he sings full out, rather than reciting it as Coward used to do. Different as it is, it is a very effective performance. Mr. Alexander has his hair cut in a very '30s style, which is a very nice touch.
Melissa Bayern handles the soprano material with a lovely voice. Unfortunately, she is saddled with an ill-fitting, ugly '30s style blonde wig. "London Pride" and the act two opener "Mad About the Boy" are two of her strong moments. She duets with Larry Alexander on "Someday I'll Find You" and "I'll Follow My Secret Heart," two Coward operetta numbers. Lizzie Hagstedt, with a vivacious stage demeanor, handles most of the comedy work. Her wig is far better; in fact, I wasn't sure that it was a wig until I ran into her exiting the theater after. If her vocal chores are not enough, she plays 2nd piano off and on through the show (very well), does a brief stint on accordion, and, in a moment of great hilarity, pushes the bass player away from his instrument and accompanies herself for a stretch. She is a performer I would like to see more of. Her act one highlight, a traversal through a 1930s musical called The Coconut Girl, is a delight, but unfortunately, the words are difficult to understand. I normally respect shows done in small theaters where the choice is made not to amplify, and this one does not. I wish she could have been miked for this one number so the audience could understand more of the lyrics. In the second act, with an antique looking stand microphone used as a prop, the performers get just a bit of aural help.
The show I saw was perhaps not as perfect as the director might hope for. Matt McGee at the end of act two gets to delight with one of Coward's funniest songs, "Nina" ("Senorita Nina, from Argentina"). As he told the audience, it had been a tough, tiring week and his concentration was a bit off. First, he muffed an entrance into a story shared by the cast about Coward doing a run in Las Vegas, went back to recreate it, and then got off to a faulty start on the song. He started again, but Larry Alexander, who partners him in the song, broke up and the number fell apart in the most hysterical fashion possible, with Alexander at one point flat on the floor, which I don't think was intended. Many in the audience, myself included, were in tears, it was so funny. There were other minor mishaps during the performance, all of which serve to remind why live theater is so enjoyable.
Music direction by the very handsome Philip King with an assist by an uncredited bass player is excellent. Mr. King also sings during ensemble sections and delivers some dialogue about Mr. Coward. The setting by Greg Bierce allows for some table seating, and invokes a glamorous cabaret of the period when performers donned elegant evening clothes to appear before the public. It provides numerous different playing spaces, well utilized by director Steven Flaa to keep things visually varied. I just wish he realized that less can be more when staging the songs. Mr. Coward is funny enough without heavy-handed slapstick, so stage a few numbers and let the rest be delivered simply. The first act afternoon clothing and second act evening formal wear is beautiful and evocative, designed by Mike and Kathy Buck Designs.
I am delighted that we have an opportunity for many to be (re)introduced to the great music of Noël Coward performed by a fine cast.
A Marvelous Party! The Noël Coward Celebration, at American Stage Theatre Company, through December 22, 2013, 163 Third Street North, St. Petersburg. For more information, visit www.americanstage.org.
Director: Steven Flaa*