Regional Reviews: Phoenix
A Night with Noël: The Music of Noël Coward
The basis of this cabaret came from one of the shows that Actors Theatre is presenting in repertory this summer, Sandy Rustin's farcical British setThe Cottage. Rustin based her play somewhat on Coward's famous comedies, even including a brief reference to the character "Mrs. Worthington," the focus of one of Coward's most famous songs, in her play. Actors Theatre's Artistic Director Matthew Wiener approached actor and singer Ian Christiansen, who is appearing in both summer repertory plays, about creating an evening of Coward music as a way to complement The Cottageand A Night with Noël was born.
Coward's plays are known for a combination of highbrow sophistication, use of double entendre and biting words, and his songs are no different. For this cabaret, the good news is that Christiansen featured most of Coward's famous songs, including "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," "A Room with a View" and "Mad About the Boy." Also, most of the songs were expertly performed, with Christiansen taking turns with Heather Fallon to deliver them, and both performers looked the typical height of Coward sophistication, with Christiansen in a crisp tuxedo and Fallon in a fetching black evening dress. The bad news is that Christiansen's off-the-cuff and unrehearsed patter, including, I believe, a couple of misstated facts, while very funny at times, was unorganized, lacked focus, and was just about as far as you can get from the sophistication that Coward was known for, so it was at odds with the musical moments. The patter didn't include any information about Coward that the average theatregoer wouldn't have already known: he wrote a few plays, wrote witty and biting songs, was knighted, was homosexual and worked with Elaine Stritch. The show also only included nine songs, with the odd decision to both open and close the show with two songs that Coward didn't write. For a show that ran an hour, better organized and researched patter that either gave us some new or rare information about Coward, or at least was focused or even somehow tied to Christiansen's personal experiences, would have made the show more effective, informative and also allowed room for a couple of additional Coward songs.
Fortunately, Coward's music received fairly refined performances, so taken just on the musical moments, the evening excelled. With just one small exception, Christiansen didn't have any problems with Porter's fast paced, tongue-tying lyrics for "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and was wonderfully dry and witty in his delivery of the biting "(Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage) Mrs. Worthington." Using a nice crisp English accent throughout his singing, Christiansen also showed a touching side in his sweet and soft take on the romantic ballad "I'll See You Again." The evening opened with Christiansen performing Flanders and Swann's "A Word on My Ear," a funny song about a tone deaf performer, and ended with a version of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" that included some funny updated lyrics that Christiansen wrote himself.
Heather Fallon shined in her take on the ballads "A Room with a View" and "He Never Did That to Me" and also showed her comic abilities on "I Went to a Marvellous Party." The comical "Party" was broken up into three segments and interspersed throughout the evening, which was a great decision and tied nicely into the proceedings since the song is a first person's descriptions of the events over the course of a long party. Fallon's hilarious delivery of the last piece was perfect, sung with a drunken aplomb. But it was Fallon's performance of "Mad About the Boy" that was the highlight of the night. Sung with such gusto and assurance, Fallon didn't make one false move or misstep in her performance. Andria Fennig provided piano accompaniment, and while her playing was fine, it seemed to lack a bit of refinement and crispness that Coward's songs require to really succeed.
While A Night with Noël: The Music of Noël Coward may not have been as successful as it could have been, it did include the delightful, polished delivery of several classic Coward songs. The off the cuff patter didn't really add much value to the evening, and starting and ending the show with non-Coward songs seemed an odd choice, so the end result was a very "informal" formal evening, which is not what one would exactly associate with the classiness of Noël Coward.
The Actors Theatre production of A Night with Noël: The Music of Noël Coward played July 26th, 2014, at the Black Theatre Troupe/Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, at 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Information for upcoming Actors Theatre productions can be found at actorstheatrephx.org or by calling (602) 888-0368
Hosted By: Ian Christiansen with Heather Fallon and Andria Fennig