The Pear Theatre has made a change in its usual serious dramatic senses, reaching across the pond and a few decades back in time, to present Noel Coward’s masterful summary of his musical career. Oh Coward is a reprise of the world of Noel Coward, a gentle satirist from an arch (closeted) gay perspective on semi- repressed Britain in the early to mid 20th century, trying desperately to break out of Victorian strictures but, like Coward himself, not quite managing to release them. Of course, everyone in his set and close to it knew, delaying his knighthood by decades. Instead, he expressed his life circumstances, and the world around him, in song as gentle self-mockery– a genteel “Saturday Night Live”.
Performers: Kristin Brownstone, Elizabeth Craig, Dan Kapler and Michael Rhone make a delightful ensemble, delivering the lyrics with verve and precise diction. Special kudos to pianist Brad Arington, for a spirited performance on the grand. Mostly executed as a foursome, with an occasional, trio duo and solo, Rhone did especially well in capturing Coward’s persona and tone in a solo late in the show. In a fast-moving two acts that end all too soon, Oh Coward presents a pastiche of songs, like “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, and scenes from musicals, treating British colonial behavior and London life, alike. Coward performed a similar show to Las Vegas audiences in the 60’s reaching an American audience himself.
Coward’s oeuvre is a dialectic between repression and expression that is biting but civilized, with the notable exception of Mrs. Worthington Don’t let your daughter go on stage, where nastiness is released from suppression. Passing by Hyde Park in Spring today, one can view the very mix of modest informality and occasional passionate behavior, but within limits, that Coward viewed and transmuted into song. Spoofing repressed British behavior was his specialty, wittily observing the letting go of some of its structures without losing control until they do as in a song parodying a Missionary going native but, of course, that happened abroad.
Diane Tasca, the Pear Theatre’s founder, introduced the evening by sharing that she had fulfilled a long held wish to bring to the Pear a show that she had performed in her youth. She also quoted Coward to the effect that he didn’t mind critical reviews as long as they consisted of unadulterated praise. He didn’t have to worry. In his era and in the world of sophisticated musical theatre his only peer was the American, Cole Porter. Porter, however, tended to a more Romantic style than Coward’s social commentary that is more akin to George Bernard Shaw’s but without the Socialism. However, Shaw required Lerner and Lowe to bring music to Pygmalion and make My Fair Lady of it. Coward was a worthy successor to Gilbert and Sullivan, combining both in one persona.
Far away, but not so long ago, a tradition of topical musical theatrical performance provided a gentle critique of British upper middle-class London life, more explicit than Gilbert and Sullivan, who invented fanciful plots to place a modest distance between the audience and the society satirized that were mostly one and the same. There was no barrier of fictional artifice between Coward and his audience. Rising from a modest background, Coward became part of the high society, whose foibles he gently commented upon, from the perch of a long-term relationship with a member of the Royal family.
Coward was a versatile playwright as well as performer. Some of his efforts, like Blyth Spirit, the epitome of sophisticated drawing room comedy, reached the screen. Fans of the Lamplighters will enjoy this successor to Gilbert and Sullivan as will anyone who appreciates 1930’s Hollywood movies on TCM. The closest American counterpart to Coward’s musical satire is Tom Lehrer, the quondom Harvard mathematician and nightclub performer that this reviewer caught at New York’s Blue Angel, circa 1960.
Silicon Valley is ripe for a local avatar to prick the balloons of a technocratic elite.
Until we generate a contemporary Coward, the original will have to do. Get thee to the Pear on La Avenida Street in Mountain view to catch Oh Coward before it closes on 15 July.
More about the Pear at thepear website
All photos by Michael Craig/Pear Theatre