Saturday, October 31, 2020

367. OH COWARD! From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Roderick Cook, Jamie Ross, Barbara Cason.

OH COWARD! [Musical Revue] M/LY: Noël Coward; D: Roderick Cook; S: Helen Pond and Herbert Senn; P: Wroderick Productions, Inc.; T: New Theatre (OB): 10/4/72-6/17/73 (294)

English playwright-actor Roderick Cook, a Noël Coward specialist, devised, directed, and performed in this sparklingly tasteful, intelligent, and deceptively simple Off-Broadway revue of the master’s songs and jottings. Cook had originated it for the Vancouver International Festival in 1968, titled And Now Noël Coward . . . An Agreeable Impertinence, and starring Dorothy Loudon. After negative critical response, it was reworked for Broadway and called Noël Coward’s Sweet Potato, opening on September 29, 1968, and garnering 44 performances. Cook revised it again as Oh Coward!, produced in in Toronto and elsewhere, and then brought it to Off Broadway in this production. 

With a modest accompaniment from twin pianos and a drum, the two-man (Cook and Jamie Ross), one woman (Barbara Cason), formally-garbed cast provided a spot-on interpretation of Coward’s stylish sophistication and verbal marksmanship, with every chiseled word precisely spoken, and every tuneful note sung with clarity and charm. Even the curtain, showing a double-headed caricature of Coward, one face a bit sour, the other slightly smiling, contributed to the overall effect.

So aptly was it done that the lack any particularly noteworthy voice—Mel Gussow thought Ross the best singer—was of secondary concern. The spoken passages were plucked from Coward’s plays and books, most of the songs from his shows. A few songs—like Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It”—had been sung by Coward although someone else wrote them.  

Among the many musical numbers—created over 38 years—were “Something to Do with Spring,” “Ziegeuner,” “We Were Dancing,” “Sail Away,” “Room with a View,” “If Love Were All,” “Mrs. Worthington,” “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “Gertie,” “Mad about the Boy,” “Someday I’ll Find You,” and “I’ll See You Again.”

Oh Coward! was played straight. Gussow reported, “Wisely, Mr. Cook and his companions play everything tight to the chest. They barely crack a smile, even when laughing—but we laugh. Nothing is spoofed or ridiculed. There is no overstatement or overproduction. . . . ‘Oh Coward’ lets Sir Noel speak for himself.” John Simon referred to the approach as a perfect example of “high camp,” meaning “subversive or even anarchic views given the most genteel and soigné expression.” He thought the revue “a small diamond, but . . . a very nearly flawless one.” Like several others, he made special note of the originality of Cook’s interpretation of the song, “The Party’s Over Now,” from Words and Music, long associated with Beatrice Lillie’s eccentric rendition. Here, though, it was proffered as the unhappy remembrance of a man suffering the aftereffects of a “marvelous party” that was anything but “marvelous.”

Oh Coward! subsequently played in London, and, in 1986, was revived at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre for 56 performances, earning Tony nominations for Cook and Catherine Cox.