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Theater Review: A Marvelous Party: The Noël Coward Celebration

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Vintage ditties from the Noël Coward songbook may sound like stale ale to some, but in the hands of the team now at the Laguna Playhouse, the music is as lively and effervescent as a just-popped bottle of champagne. 

A Marvelous Party: The Noël Coward Celebration (through December 17), sprinkles some of the actor-songwriter-playwright’s observations among more than 30 of his songs for a revitalizing look at a one-man British theater tradition.  Credit director David Ira Goldstein and choreographer Patricia Wilcox, who devised the show along with its performers.  But save your ovation for Mark Anders, Carl Danielsen and Anna Lauris, who combine the singing, acting, dancing and (from the men) piano playing that make this an exceptionally entertaining evening. 

This is the West Coast premiere for a production that has moved intact -– down to the tacky music-symbol gobos (its only less-than-stellar element) –- from its 2005 premiere in Rochester, New York and subsequent award-winning turn in Chicago.  Consequently, these are performances honed far beyond what mere rehearsals can produce. 

A year on stage together has so synced these three that Southern California audiences get a bonus: experiencing a dimension of live entertainment lost since Music Halls flourished in Britain and Vaudeville was king of American.  Entertainers back then performed their routines several times a day for years and years.  They eventually became second nature and could be delivered with seeming spontaneity that belied their hard-won precision. 

That is the gift of Party. 

The exceptions to the rule of heavenly harmony and choreography are the three solo pieces that lead up to the break.  Here the individual members get to stretch out -– in one case literally.  Anders delivers a slyly madcap “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” before Danielsen accompanies himself on piano for “Mrs. Wentworth-Brewster” (and another example of making a difficult a-rhythmic, percussive novelty look easy). 

But the tour de force is saved for Ms. Lauris, who goes on a marathon six-song recreation gathered into “The Coconut Girl.”  A workout worthy of a month’s gym membership lands her center stage, doing the splits as black-out is called.  (And called a bit quickly, it would seem, unless she needs to forego the lights for ligaments.)

Coward, who was born into a middle-class family in 1899, had his first stage experience in a school play at 12.  According to legend, he was impressive enough to earn subsequent professional work as a child actor.  By his 20s, which coincided with the Roaring ‘20s, he had learned enough about theater and music to begin writing what would ultimately total more than 50 published plays — including three regular regional staples, Hay Fever, Blithe Spirit and Private Lives.  By his death in 1973, he had produced a library of comic revues, letters, diaries, poetry and short stories, as well as one novel and three volumes of autobiography.  His filmed performances are regularly aired in Our Man in Havana, Bunny Lake is Missing, Around the World in 80 Days and The Italian Job, among others.

A show like Marvelous Party, however, hopes to recall more than music.  Coward represented a special era and a unique kind of celebrity.  A world traveler, he wrote songs that, through lyrics as immaculately shaped as lead crystal, offered vicarious tours of the globe's exotic ports and naughty parts.  He celebrated British sophistication as he mocked it, with songs that managed to make fun of everyone, as in the convoluted anti-Nazi tune "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans." 

Everything about this production -– save the aforementioned lighting choice -– is spot on.  The Playhouse proscenium arch has been given ornate splendor, with potted plants that change between acts.  Similarly, costumes for the performers, band and even stage crew get an interval upgrade from music hall wear to concert hall evening clothes. Credit, too, to David Edwards as sound sentinel, and the three-piece band who, although they have are local, blend right in, not only playing the music but supplying sound effects for every comic turn and take.  It earns Sir Noël's lyrics, "a marvelous party, I must say the fun was intense … And I couldn't have liked it more."

CREDITS: words and music by Noël Coward, devised by David Ira Goldstein, Garl Danielsen, Mark Anders, Patricia Wilcox, and Anna Lewis, directed by Mr. Goldstein, musical arrangements and direction by Mr. Danielsen, choreography by Ms. Wilcox, Bill Forrester, set; David Kay Mickelsen, costumes; Todd Hensley, lights; David Edwards, sound; Vernon Willet, stage manager

With Mssrs. Anders and Danielsen and Ms. Lauris, supported by pianist John Randall, bassist Jim Dell, and percussionist Jeremy Reinbolt.

West Coast premiere • Laguna Playhouse • November 14-December 17, 2006

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