I suppose each of us is 'one of a kind,' but some are more one of kind than others. Sir Noel Coward was certainly in the second group. If you were oxymoronically inclined, you might say he made snobbery accessible. Quite a trick! His secret, of course, was an impeccable, irresistible sense of humor. That's not to say Coward took nothing seriously. Matters of the heart touched him deeply, but how does a sophisticated, man-about-town express such matters? Within the small circumference of that quandary, Coward created a glorious, artificial paradise all his own.
If the poet William Blake could discover God in a grain of sand, Coward knew how to reveal the agonies of love in the verbal jousting of a man and woman who passionately desire one another but dare not admit it. His Antigones and Ophelias were comediennes and lived at the Ritz.
At Le Petit, where the review bearing his name is currently onstage, Coward's caricatured profile smiles and frowns from opposite wings like the two masks of drama. The set, by David Walker and Derek Franklin, is suitably swank. Black and silver in vaguely Deco forms transport us back to the days of nightclubs and cigarette smoke.
Oh, Coward! is a musical revue. There are three performers: Ricky Graham, Sean Patterson and Lara Grice. They sing more than 40 songs by 'the master,' including such classics as 'The Stately Homes of England,' 'Mrs. Worthington,' 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' and 'Let's Do It.'
The show was 'devised' by Roderick Cook, who also won a Tony Award for his role in the original 1986 New York City production. Rather than provide a lot of biological data, Cook went for the heart of the matter: entertainment. He let Coward speak for himself -- or, rather, sing for himself -- in his own archly humorous fashion. What you lose in details, you gain in spirit.
Here, co-directors Ricky Graham and Karen Hebert have more than met the challenge. First of all, they picked a sterling cast -- which in Graham's case, meant picking himself, among others. And it's worth remembering that Graham starred in an excellent earlier version of the show at Southern Rep, back in 1997. Clearly, the Graham/Coward chemistry runs deep.
Having put together the right little troupe, the directors set a nice pace, sprinkling comic surprises here and there to keep things interesting. For instance, they give us living portraits who sing from within their gilded frames. Even the hallowed ancestors, it seems, are willing to help out when it comes to cranking money out of 'The Stately Homes of England.' Of course, 'veddy, veddy' British dilemmas of that sort are not quite topical to us on this side of the Atlantic. In fact, they're utterly exotic. The same goes for the world-weary upper-crust ennui of 'Why Do the Wrong People Travel, Travel, Travel, While the Right People Stay at Home.' We laugh in agreement, even though -- in the context of the song -- we all, no doubt, belong to the execrable class of 'wrong' people. Oh well, maybe it's the repetition of the word 'travel' that makes us laugh. Travel times three! Just like those 'wrong' people to overdo it!
Often with Coward, you have the feeling there is some very particular back story to the song he's written -- some grain of irritation he has transmuted to a comic pearl. For instance, we don't have to have a clear image of Mrs. Worthington or her daughter to find it hilarious that our three songsters are ready to fall on their knees and beg 'Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington.' We believe that Sir Noel knew them both, only too well.
Because of the sprightly pace, the small cast and the wealth of material, I am hard pressed to pick out individual shining moments. The show is like a Whitman's Sampler and ultimately, it's the box of chocolates you praise, not this piece or that piece. Graham, Grice and Patterson are poised and silly.
Poised and silly! That's the particular kind of good time that Oh, Coward! offers us. And, those same two incongruous adjectives also describe the scintillating language that trips the light fantastic from Coward's tongue.
'Have you ever crossed the Sahara on a desert?' asks one socialite, flirtatiously.
Her interlocutor replies, with a sigh of suppressed tedium:
'Oh, frequently.' How can there be so much pleasure hidden in two such poised and silly words?
- Triple threat: Ricky Graham, Lara Grice and Sean Patterson rise to the occasion in Le Petit's staging of Oh, Coward!