According to a popular Broadway anecdote, Noel Coward didn't like Anton Chekhov as a playwright, and really didn't appreciate Chekhov's The Sea Gull. When Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne opened in a 1938 production of the play, Lunt, upon seeing the set, quoted his witty friend. "I hate plays," Coward had said, "that have a stuffed bird sitting on a bookcase screaming, `I'm the title, I'm the title, I'm the title!'"
Noel Coward was a man of many words, some of them dry barbs for his contemporaries and critics, others warm and insightful for his loyal circle of friends. But none were ever dull. Instead he was droll, acute in his observations and precise with his phrasing. Playwright, actor, director, producer, autobiographer, and screenwriter, Coward was also a composer and lyricist of renown, and hisconsiderable gifts are celebrated in the New Theatre's production of Noel Coward: A Talent to Amuse. Throughout this evening - mainly a collection of Coward's popular songs from his satirical revues, musical comedies, and nightclub acts - the proper amount of smart sophistication is present. All that's missing is the wit, and without it, unfortunately, Coward becomes a bore.
New Theatre's artistic director, Rafael de Acha, has fashioned a hodgepodge of slides, songs, and snippets from Coward's life, based on autobiographical works. Perhaps reverence for this master of British theater caused de Acha to leave out the best of Coward, the perceptive pen that often turned inward. Coward's "I'll See You Again" is performed as a tortured love duet and a maudlin farewell to life, but the composer described a show in which he sang it with "neither precision nor taste," and that's omitted - exactly the sort of touch Coward would have loved.
The cabaret revue opens with two performers, David Alt and Kimberly Daniel, delivering third-person monologues about Coward's early life, accompanied by faint slides on the back wall. The pair then change into Noel Coward and his long-time companion, actress Gertrude Lawrence, and perform a medley of Coward's songs, broken up by bits of dialogue that attempt to explain why certain tunes are grouped together, under such headings as "The Potency of Cheap Music," or "The Party's Over Now." The formula doesn't work, the interchanges add nothing to the songs, nor do they produce any dramatic action.
Coward's best musical work is showcased, from the haunting "Sail Away" to the biting "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" Some audience members might be satisfied with this introduction to his songs, but those familiar with the snappy lyrics and precise timing necessary for the Coward brand of comedy will find these renditions melodic, but only mildly amusing. A major problem with the show, in fact, is the comic timing - neither performer accents the right words, or pauses at the perfect moment.
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Several numbers are entertaining, such as "The End of the News," and "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington," and Alt manages to produce the Coward ambience more often than Daniel does. Unfortunately both of them, in this piece at least, are singers first and actors second, and while their strong, formal voices are fine for the bittersweet "If Love Were All," those same vocal qualities obscure the rapid-fire satire of "I've Been to a Marvelous Party."
The production is not without charm. The costumes, principally Daniel's gown in the second act, are perfectly matched to the elegant supper-club atmosphere - comfortable and so well-designed there are no bad seats. Competent and never intrusive, Joe Youngblood at the piano doesn't subtract from the music.
The concept of a Coward revue is a good one, and New Theatre must be commended for bringing the work of great artists to this area - Coward is a definite cut above frothy vacation fare. A few entertaining pieces have been produced by the playwright's own countrymen (who have the timing down). Perhaps the subtle barbs of the master are best left to mad dogs and Englishmen, or at least to those who can blend Coward's songs and commentaries with a bit more action and comedy.
NOEL COWARD: A TALENT TO AMUSE
Conceived, designed, and staged by Rafael de Acha; with David Alt, Kimberly Daniel, and Joe Youngblood at the piano, at New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave, Coral Gables, through December 15. Performances Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 7:00 and 9:30 p.m., and Sunday at 5 p.m. Tickets cost $11 to $15, with discounts for students and seniors; call 443-5909.