A Marvelous Pity

Low-rent musical bioplays — or "celebrations," as they're called — are an unavoidable part of regional theater, and I'm glad. They are pleasant, aggressively brainless wastes of time, and I don't mind their invasion of otherwise vibrant playhouses every four or five months. Why the hell should I? Music is fun, singing is fun, and musical theater has known a lot of great composers. It'd be a shame if one had to find productions of, say, every last show Irving Berlin ever did in order to hear a decent cross section of his music. Why not take 25 or 30 of his best songs, stick 'em together with some biographical exposition, add some snazzy choreography, hire a piano player, and get to it? Audiences of a certain age will eat it up, which means the theaters will have more money to spend on more daring productions later in the year, which means some new playwright will be able to eat for another week, which means he will write more plays, which means some theater will be able to produce his as-yet-unwritten masterpieces in maybe 30 or 40 years, sandwiched between "celebrations" of Jason Robert Brown and Jeff Marx. It's the circle of life, you see, and it moves us all, from penniless exiled Iranian playwright Assurbinipal Babilla to the hideously wealthy Andrew Lloyd Webber. It even moves Louis Tyrell, who runs Florida Stage, and whom I'd brutally cockslap if he weren't so frightfully good at being so shrewdly rotten.

Because, holy God, we are in the thick of it now. Maybe it has something to do with summer, and maybe it has to do with the end of one theatrical season and the need to lure subscription holders back for another. Maybe it's something in the water. Regardless of the cause, the fact remains: Low-rent-musical-bioplays (henceforth to be referred to as "LRMBs") are suddenly everywhere. Actor's Playhouse just did Tom Lehrer; Palm Beach Dramaworks had a whack at Stephen Sondheim; Caldwell did Elvis; Danny Kaye's had two goes in South Florida recently; and in the past year, Florida Stage has done Ella Fitzgerald, Ginger Rogers, and now... Noel Coward.

Noel Coward.

This is not a good idea.

Consider the music that must have been performed in all those just-mentioned LRMBs, and the reasons are obvious. Ella still swings, Elvis still rocks, Tom Lehrer's still evil, and Sondheim is still the best the idiom has to offer. What's up with Noel Coward? His music, unlike his writing, has aged wretchedly. He couldn't twist lyrics nearly so deftly as, say, Cole Porter. His melodies were more consistently entertaining than Porter's, but not by much, and if you stack the men's best work side by side, Coward looks like a compromiser. And his harmonic ideas, so pretty and unpredictable in their best incarnations, can sustain you for only so long when they're being bashed out by a three-piece band.

In A Marvelous Party, a number of once-great songs are reduced to harmless, ineffectual anachronisms: "Together With Music" is sweet but pointless; "London Is a Little Bit of Alright" is the same way, minus the sweetness; "Any Little Fish" is similar to but less interesting than "Let's Fall in Love," which Cole Porter wrote three years later; and "There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner" was the template for a whole genre of uptempo-but-gloomy songs that would appear over the next 50 years to upstage and defang the original (think Tom Lehrer's "Who's Next?" and Randy Newman's "Sail Away"). The show's best songs — the gloriously racist "Mad Dogs & Englishmen," the gorgeous, Danny-Boyish "Matelot," the moving paean to father-daughter incest "Would You Like to Stick a Pin in My Balloon" — get by on prettiness and ribaldry, hardly a great foundation for a production.

Which is not to besmirch Noel Coward. Songwriting was one of only five things he did with stunning facility. The appeal of the man has always been his polymath's approach, and to showcase his music without showcasing his acting, writing, directing, and the incredible profile he cut while flouncing from party to decadent party (even while working for the British Secret Service, which he did) is to miss the point.

A Marvelous Party understands this and compensates where it can. One of the show's three stars, Mark Anders (also a co-conceiver of the production), functions onstage as a stand-in for Coward, behaving in Cowardly ways and saying Cowardly things and speaking in the first person when relating excerpts from Cowardly diary entries. The between-song patter and midsong mugging is really wonderful here — funnier than the similar bits from Palm Beach Dramaworks' Side by Side by Sondheim last month, less affected than the Tom Lehrer LRMB going down at Actor's Playhouse, and more illuminating than either. Coward's personality, perhaps his greatest gift, comes through very clearly in bits of half-joking self-aggrandizement and in Anders' overwhelming joie de vivre. He spends most of the show looking like a brilliant but naughty little boy who's had a bit too much champagne at a grownups' party and knows he's cute enough to avoid any serious trouble.

A Marvelous Party's other two stars do their bit to drag attention away from the spiritual emptiness and musical so-whatness at the heart of the show. Tall Jeffrey Rockwell, with his chiseled face, hero's chin, and gangly-but-buff bod, has stunning physical instincts. He is one of those rare bodily presences that can render unfunny things funny by some small and mysterious contortion of an appendage. Both he and Anders augment musical director Christopher McGovern's loose three-piece ensemble with some fine, agile piano playing. Rockwell's is limpid and beautiful; Anders' is urbane, smart, and staccato.

I wish to God I'd seen more of Stefanie Morse over the years. Who the hell is this woman, and why isn't she famous? She's beautiful, she can dance in seemingly any style with great freedom and verve, and her voice is one of those Broadway-bound marvels that blesses any song it touches with more beauty than the composer gave it. At times, she sounds like Julie Andrews, with those lovely transparent notes flying around in the upper register and the sensual throatiness down below. Then she contorts it, and she can sound like anything: a torch-song singer, a warbling milkmaid. Even Ethel Merman.

It is impossible to a find a technical flaw in A Marvelous Party, and I thank Louis Tyrell and company for a lovely evening. I've never seen a more skillfully executed LRMB. If only somebody would sink so much effort and talent into a real play or two, I would be a very happy man.

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Brandon K. Thorp