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A Coward rarity, smartly done

Theater Two, Richard B. Fisher Center, Annandale
08/04/2011 -  and August 5, 6, 7*, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 2011
Noël Coward: Bitter Sweet
Sarah Miller (Sarah/Sari), William Ferguson (Carl), Amanda Squittieri (Manon), Siân Phillips (Lady Shayne), Ryan Speakman (Lord Shayne), Marianne Rendon (Dolly), Joel Johnstone (Vincent), Brian Maxsween (Henry), Justin Randolph (Hugh/Tranisch), Joshua Jeremiah (Sir Arthur, Captain Lutte), Claire Simard (Mrs. Millick), David Schnell (Herr Schlick)
James Bagwell (Conductor)
Michael Galieta (Director), Adrian W. Jones (Set Designer), Gregory Gale (Costume Designer), Chrisopher Caines (Choreographer), Christopher Akerlind (Lighting Designer)

The Vienna Girls(© Cory Weaver)

A theatre-wise man once stated that the only thing that sells tickets is a fit of insanity on the part of the public. Just such a fit apparently seized Bard Summerscape’s clientele, as the entire nine-performance run of Noël Coward’s operetta Bitter Sweet sold out weeks before opening night.

Coward’s fame as playwright and composer seems as assured as ever almost forty years after his death, yet Bitter Sweet, such a success in its day, has had only sporadic professional revivals in recent decades. Premiered in 1929, it had major runs in London and New York, then a two-week revival in New York in 1934. Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy were in a film version in 1940 – a picture that Coward himself hated.

The operetta contains one of the famous songs of the era, “I’ll see you again”, and another fine song, “If love were all” that contains the phrase “a talent to amuse” which adorns Coward’s monument in Westminster Abbey. Yet in many ways it suffers from its creation at the tail-end of operetta’s silver age when the form’s range of possible expression had pretty much been mined out.

Coward was inspired by a performance of Die Fledermaus and wanted to do something with equal sparkle. He certainly succeeded in part, although at times the music and drama succumb to a conventional wistfulness.

The production’s director, Michael Gieleta, has prepared an astute version of the work for this presentation (with permission of the Noël Coward estate). The plot involves a leap backward in time of some 49 years – originally starting in 1929, then jumping back in time to c. 1880 as the work’s central character, Sarah (who becomes Sari, then Lady Shayne) reminisces about her life in which she chose to renounce a secure marriage to pursue a bohemian existence with the love of her life.

At Bard the opening scene takes place in 1969, so the leap back in time takes us to the 1920s, the era of the music’s composition. A young woman, Dolly, is engaged to be married to a stuffy young man. The elderly (but very soigné) Lady Shayne happens to enter as Dolly is in a passionate embrace with the pianist hired for the evening’s event. Dolly is embarrassed, but Lady Shayne begins to recount her life story, starting with the song “The call of life”.

1920: It turns out that Lady Shayne was once Sarah Millick, a young woman of good family (Belgrave Square no less) who is engaged to a reserved young man (when she exclaims “I’m in love!” he responds with “Restrain yourself”.) It turns out she IS in love - but with her singing teacher, Carl Linden, and much to the dismay of family and friends, they run off to Vienna (the quintessential city of operetta). Carl gets a job playing in a seedy nightclub while Sarah is forced to become a taxi dancer, a job one small step removed from prostitution. An importunate military officer pursues her. A French singer, Manon Le Crevette, is an old flame of Carl’s, but he resists her flirtations. The officer becomes brutally aggressive, Carl intervenes – and is killed in a duel.

In this version there is rather an abrupt return to London after some 18 years have passed. Sarah (now Sari Linden) has made a name for herself performing her late husband’s songs. Her former bridesmaids-to-be have all married wealthy men – and one is not exactly unhappy that her husband drank himself to death. Sari feels she has fulfilled her artistic aspirations and finally accept the long-proffered marriage proposal from the music-loving Lord Shayne.

Back to 1969: the conclusion isn’t entirely clear, but we see that Dolly is now leaning toward tossing over her conventional fiancé for life with her scruffy pianist lover.

Lady Shayne is played by none other than the redoubtable Siân Phillips. (Is she referred to as a living legend? She ought to be.) Her riveting stage presence is essential in the scenes where she silently watches moments from her past life.

Performers with solid operatic training and experience were chosen for the three leading roles. The romantic leads, Sarah Miller (Sarah) and William Ferguson (Carl) are both charming performers. Their duets are the best numbers they get to sing. “I’ll see you again” makes its appearance in the first act when she and Carl assume she will be marrying her fiancé and he will return to Vienna alone. In Act II there is “Dear little café”, in which she and Carl imagine a better life after quitting the sordid nightclub.

In addition to an attractive voice, Mr Ferguson gets to demonstrate pianistic ability. Ms Miller effectively conjures up a winsomeness apt to the period.

The third big role is that of Manon, the world-wise French chanteuse, played by Amanda Squittieri. The main purpose of her role is to provide a counterpoint to Sarah in the life of the nightclub. Sarah (no Sally Bowles she!) is unable to feign the required flirtatious manner with the patrons of the joint, while Manon, although in love with Carl, manages to get on with her life. She gets to sing “If love were all” as well as a saucy French number, “Bonne nuit, merci”. Ms Squittieri has a way of slightly exaggerating aspects of the role and this works extremely well.

There is also some clever choreography, thanks to Christopher Caines. The three Vienna showgirls do a number demonstrating just how well they can dance badly. Four waiters-cum-chorusboys get to perform the show’s most amusing number, “Green carnation”, an unambiguous display of out-and-out camp. Here is a selection of its lyrics: “Pretty boys, witty boys...haughty boys, naughty boys...faded boys, jaded boys”. It has to be the gayest number in music theatre prior to the 1970s when works like Boy Meets Boy came on the scene.

Conductor James Bagwell (also chorus master for Summerscape's Die Liebe der Danae) ably conducts the 12-member orchestra. (Jack Parton arranged and prepared the music). Adrian W. Jones’s set seemed a bit stark for the framing scenes, but made a notably deft change to and from the Viennese scene. Supporting roles are well performed, notably David Schnell as Herr Schlick, the seedy nightclub owner, Joshua Jeremiah as the caddish Captain Lutte, and Ryan Speakman as the sympathetic Lord Shayne.

Bitter Sweet is credited with spawning an entire genre of British operetta, notably the works by Ivor Novello. They have pretty much fallen by the wayside. Two years prior to Bitter Sweet Broadway welcomed Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, a work that is credited for leading the way toward musical theatre’s golden age. Not that Bitter Sweet isn’t worth doing, and worth doing well, as at Bard.

Michael Johnson



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