Chicago Theatre Review
A Marvelous Party
Oh, Coward! – Dead Writers Theatre
Entering this intimate 80-seat venue, audiences will suddenly be transported back in time to a salon, decorated in Art Deco splendor, soon to enjoy the high society wit and whimsy of a man who became the personification of droll jocularity. One of theatre’s most highly respected creative muses, Britain’s Sir Noel Coward is known worldwide as a gifted playwright, composer, singer, actor and international bon vivant. His brilliant, biting observations, glamour and elegance is displayed in this two-act cabaret, aimed at avid Coward fans and newcomers to the his tart, clear-sighted comedy.
This 1972 Off Broadway revue, devised by Roderick Cook, presents an eclectic mixture of songs and melodies from the hundreds Coward composed for the theatre, films, revues, operettas and solo presentations, interspersed with spoken words, taken from his bounty of plays, poetry, screenplays and short stories. Presented by a trio of talented area performers, Coward’s works, primarily from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, are presented with varying degrees of success. The threesome is accompanied by pianist extraordinaire, Howard Pfeifer, and is directed and choreographed by Jeff nominated Cameron Turner (whose excellent production of “Tomorrow Morning” is also currently running at Theater Wit). The revue features the tight musical direction guided by Gerald H. Bailey.
The cast includes dashing veteran actor Michael Pacas, playing (one supposes) Noel Coward in his prime; handsome, young Ian Rigg, representing the artist in his earlier years, or, perhaps, a young Lawrence Olivier; and lovely Joanna Riopelle, who completes the ensemble as a stand-in for every Coward femme fatale, such as Gertrude Lawrence, Lynn Fontanne or Marlene Dietrich. While perhaps not the strongest singers, the cast deliver their solos, duets and ensemble numbers with authority and flair. The main difficulty comes when Mr. Pfeifer’s onstage accompaniment overwhelms the vocals or when enunciation, so important in Noel Coward songs, becomes garbled. The melodies, while often haunting, simply aren’t enough; it’s the words that Noel Coward is all about. If audiences can’t understand what the vocalists are singing, the evening becomes an exercise in frustration.
However, this two-hour program is stuffed with almost 40 of Noel Coward’s finest compositions, although many of the songs are included as part of a medley. Favorites include “Dance Little Lady,” “A Room With a View,” “Sail Away,” “Family Album,” the deliciously wicked “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” along with the amusing tale of “Mrs. Worthington.” Act II, which features some of the best from the Coward oeuvre, opens with the much-loved “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” followed by Mr. Rigg’s impish rendition of “A Marvelous Party.” The delightful “I Am No Good at Love” and “Nina” bookend a deliciously naughty “Mad About the Boy,” sung with honest sentiment by Ms. Riopelle. The humorous “In a Bar on the Piccola Marina” leads us to the finale, a medley comprised of “If Love Were All,” “Play, Orchestra, Play” and the wistfully haunting “Someday I’ll Find You.”
A production of Noel Coward’s music hasn’t been seen in Chicago for quite a while, and makes a welcome offering, as the summer winds down. Eric Luchen once again weaves his scenic magic, creating a beautiful set that includes a second level, with a staircase that descends down to the stage level, a gorgeous set of sliding doors, up center, painted with Art Deco design, and a baby grand piano that dominates the entire room. Costumer Patti Roeder has designed two distinct looks for each actor, all authentically period. She opens with a casual, tweedy English country approach for Act I and then ops for more proper, stylish formalwear in Act II. Unfortunately Aaron Lorenz’s luminary design isn’t nearly as creative, striving to merely wash the stage with light. In attempting this, Lorenz often leaves many areas in darkness and allows unnecessary shadows to fall across the actors’ faces. Still, taken as a whole, this is an engaging, entertaining evening of words and music, created by a master of the art whom audiences will certainly enjoy and applaud.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 26-September 18 by Dead Writers Theatre Collective at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 773-935-6875 or by going to www.deadwriters.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.