What makes a party marvelous? Noel Coward's song tells us: extravagant and gossip-worthy behavior by your acquaintances, of course, amplified by inebriation — your own and theirs.
I feared that A Marvelous Party: the Noel Coward Celebration, which opened at ACT last Thursday, would offer nothing of the kind: no extravagance, no surprise, no intoxication. What kind of party can it be where the guests sit in the dark and watch the hosts amuse themselves? A tribute to a major figure in the minor arts: what could be more tiresome? Besides, I don't like revues. I don't like cabaret. Musicals leave me cold. Operettas bore me. Camp — high, low, or in between — tries too hard. I expected the worst. A marvelous party? Bah.
I was wrong. This is the best party I've been to in a long time.
On the show's simple set, five performers (one a drummer who stays out of the limelight) will keep you agog and laughing through all 31 numbers, written though they were in ancient times, none later than 1963. Coward's little morsels have zest, but they dwell in that hazy borderland between art and entertainment where bathos threatens: it takes talent to keep them from shriveling up. That talent is plentifully displayed here. ACT, which prides itself on its commitment to the art of acting, fully realizes that mission in A Marvelous Party: the strong triple-threat performers sing, dance, and act up with delightful panache.
Director David Ira Goldstein, formerly Associate Artistic Director at ACT and now leader of the Arizona Theatre Company, created the show with four collaborators, two of whom are in the cast. Perhaps it is this creative participation by some of the performers that gives the evening extra spice, though their new colleagues are equally joyful and unrestrained. Anna Lauris is exceptional, consistently bold and hilarious; "The Coconut Girl," her finest solo and the heart of the show, is an alarming achievement. David Silverman is at every moment engaging. A graceful dancer and expressive comedian with a strong voice, he earns new laurels for the British Fleet one moment and romances his lady the next as a tap dancing rake. Mark Anders, though his comic edge is dulled by insincerity when he banters with the other actors, redeems himself with his own solos: "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" will explain for you better than any textbook why the Victorians colonized the world with such success. Anders and music director Richard Gray duel to great effect on a pair of pianos, and Gray moves decisively back and forth between his minor acting roles and his major musical contributions.
Brisk entrances and exits keep the tempo up, unhindered by clutter. The bold thrust of the Gregory Falls stage is stylish but simply adorned, a gilded dance floor. The modest set serves as a bas-relief backdrop for the performers' antics. At halftime a traditional chandelier and wall sconces are replaced with art deco versions of themselves, and potted flowers with potted palms. Such subtle change occurs throughout, giving pleasure without surfeit. Stars come out and fade, fetching costumes from ball gowns to sailor suits are on parade, and felicitous props come and go with facility — old microphones, streetlamps, a chaise longue.
This party could have been a bust: too campy, with actor and audience winking at one another and complicity standing in for good work; or too earnest, with breathless deferent references to the artist's life. But Goldstein and his collaborators got it right, minding the axiom that the best way to celebrate an artist is to show his work, not talk about him. There were perhaps a couple of songs too many and a handful of unnecessary references to Coward; in one late bit, the performers would better deliver their lines and quotes without first explaining "Noel Coward wroteÃ¢'ê¬Â¦" or "Noel Coward saidÃ¢'ê¬Â¦" and with a bit less coming and going. But these are quibbles. I raise my glass to this well-curated, intimate yet wholly vigorous production.
One final note. If the frenetic post-play lobby scene is any indication, "Pinkaboo" — a "Late Night Speakeasy with Gender-Bending Cabaret" in the Bullitt on Friday and Saturday nights after the mainstage show — offers up a more participatory form of party, with not a jot less onstage vigor and even more gaiety. You have been warned.