Will Lebow, Karen MacDonald, Tommy Derrah and Remo Airaldi in A Marvelous Party.
I went to "A Marvelous Party"
with Remo, Tom, Karen and Will
It was at Zero Ar
And they were all there
Only this time they weren't
At times they would be singing solo,
At others, together, all four;
And if now and then a note got a bit thin
It just didn't matter amid all the laughter -
I couldn't have liked it more!
Ah, I wish I could go on and on and like that - certainly Noël Coward made it look easy in the tunes he turned out like clockwork over the course of his life's work. A Marvelous Party essentially skims la crème of said career, and reminds us of Coward's consummate ability as a posh vaudevillian. He didn't just have "a talent to amuse," which he ruefully admitted was his one claim to fame; he had an obsession to amuse: the list of Coward "entertainments" is a very long one, most of them coasting not on his melodic gift (which was modest) but instead on his wit (which was promethean). And the A.R.T. production, helmed by the smoothly competent Scott Edmiston, captures this wit superbly, and with neither apology nor condescension (much less any hidden attempts at deconstruction).
It's also nice that (unlike in the Huntington's Present Laughter), Coward is allowed to peek out of the closet; Edmiston gives "If Love Were All," Coward's most poignant paean to his frustrated love life, to Tommy Derrah, who turns it into a painfully straightforward gay lament:
the more you love a man -
the more you give your trust -
the more you're bound to lose . . .
So much for gay pride! True, Edmiston also gives "Mad About the Boy" to Karen MacDonald - when it, too, would be more compelling from a man - but MacDonald's smoldering neurosis makes you almost believe a heterosexual can match a homosexual in passion (well, almost). Alas, MacDonald can't match the level of cabaret singing we've come to expect from Boston's smaller theatres (imagine what Leigh Barrett could do with that song), but her occasional vocal wobbles - like those of most of the cast - are less due to limits in range than a gap in practiced control. In short, this crew can carry a tune at least as far as Coward requires (Derrah, the most accomplished vocalist, also handles Coward's most memorable melody, the conventionally sentimental "Matelot").
Key to these non-singers' success, however, is Coward's lyrical signature: a kind of free-form limerick, which he could stretch or shrink to his requirements with a rippling flourish - and these A.R.T. vets are more than crack at snapping that tongue-tripping whip in such hilarious trifles as "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?," (Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage,) Mrs. Worthington," ""Mad Dogs and Englishmen," and my particular favorite, “A Bar on the Piccola Marina.” Special mention must also be made of Remo Airaldi's hilarious take on "Nina (from Argentina)" while possessed by the ghost of - or at least the fruity headgear of - Carmen Miranda (at left). The evening reaches a giddy high with Coward's bitchy update of Porter's "Let's Do It" (lifted from his famous Vegas act), which the performers hilariously extend to the present day, and our current First Family.
The giddiness fades, of course, as we shuffle out and ponder that this is probably the last good time we'll have at the A.R.T. for months, if not years. But does it really have to be that way? The show definitely has a "second-tier" feel - it's riding a wave of local Coward productions, the set is re-purposed (from "The Onion Cellar" - it works about as well for Vegas as it did for Weimar), and Scott Edmiston is neither from Eastern Europe nor New York. And let's not forget that it's utterly, sublimely conventional, and reminds us in no uncertain terms that Coward was a cockney who through talent and hard work transformed himself into a sleek, closeted Tory. But will it penetrate management's postmodern skulls that it's nevertheless a huge hit, and that their subscribers, relieved of the responsibility to revolt, are relaxing instead, and enjoying themselves in a way they never have before - as in ever? Probably not. And more's the pity. It reminds me of an odd conversation I once had with Robert Woodruff, who wondered aloud why it was that gays and minorities didn't flock to the A.R.T. "Because your shows are no fun," I told him simply. And they still aren't - except this one time (and you've only got one weekend left to take advantage of the opportunity!). So, in celebration of the appearance at the A.R.T. of the one thing that money can't buy, here's my final attempt - I promise - at a Noël Coward lyric:
I went to a marvelous party
held by the post-modern A.R.T.;
With no platform shoes or onstage lagoons
and no gravel at all on the floor!
No jocks or kimonos? Quick, call Yoko Ono!
They're not avant-garde anymore!
(And I couldn't have liked it more!)