Some of Coward's stage- and screenplays still hold up well, particularly Design for Living and Brief Encounter. Yet many of his large works, like Blithe Spirit, now seem hopelesssly insubstantial. Coward's wit fares best when excerpted and anthologized, and that's precisely the strength of Oh Coward! We get all the little glittering bits without having to chip them out of the rocky encrustations of history.
The show is a barrage of songs (some of them sung complete), lines of poetry, autobiographical scribblings and classic Cowardisms ("I can take any amount of criticism, so long as it is unqualified praise"). There's a lot of singing, very little dancing, a good deal of piano playing and modicum of straight talk, if the word "straight" can be applied to Coward, a man who cultivated the image of a wealthy bon vivant, lounging in a dressing gown, long cigarette holder in hand, drawling "Dahling, how divine!"
A solid three-piece band backs up singer Anna Lauris and pianist-singer-actors Mark Anders and Carl J. Danielsen, the latter pair last seen in ATC's 2001 production of 2 Pianos, 4 Hands. Anders' and Danielsen's easygoing versatility is no surprise by now, and Lauris is every bit their equal. She's particularly good in "The Coconut Girl," a silly, 1920s musical condensed into about 10 minutes in which she plays all the parts and sings all the numbers (including the choruses). She does a wicked send-up of 1920s soprano style--high, loud, piercing and shivering in a cloak of vibrato.
The best thing about this trio of performers is that they're not at all slick; they are very human entertainers who work hard to maintain a direct connection with their audience, never pretending that their performance is some abstract art.
Director David Ira Golstein keeps the show moving nicely, loading the early music-hall songs with funny business but knowing when to stand back and let the cast deliver more-serious material with less physical adornment. William Forrester's simple but elegant set and Dawn Chiang's lighting design--surely full of complex cues but so sleek that the audience would never know it--strongly enhance the dapper production.
If there's a problem here, it lies at Coward's own slippered feet. He was a superb, wickedly funny (and sometimes touchingly sentimental) lyricist, but his music was no more than serviceable. You don't expect much of a tune for a patter song (the discreetly anti-colonialist "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" being one of the best ever), but even Coward's more sustained efforts seem rather generic. This is particularly true of his early music-hall numbers, but the facelessness persists into his later, more sophisticated work from the late '30s and '40s. His slow songs in three-four time do have more individuality, but even in something like "Matelot" or "Someday I'll Find You," what we remember is the vulnerability in the words, not the music. It's telling that several people near me in the audience could anticipate the lyrics under their breath, but had trouble getting the melodies right.
Significantly, the most memorable song in this show, "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," features music by Cole Porter. Imagine the possibilities had Coward collaborated more with composers on the order of Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin or even Richard Rodgers.
In his play Private Lives, Coward has a character remark, "Strange how potent cheap music is," while playing a recording of one of Coward's own songs. It's both a self-deprecating witticism--Coward was well aware that he wrote "cheap music"--and an acknowledgment of the power of good, light music if there's something in it that people can take seriously. In Coward's case, that something is the intelligence behind the seemingly easy wit of the lyrics. In that respect, Oh Coward! is a potent show indeed.