By Bryson David Hoff
It’s a rough world out there.
Even for those who live a personal life of fulfillment and ease, the non-stop torrent of terrible news both at home and abroad pouring from every television and smart phone is enough to make one long for the simple joys of the past.
Luckily, Dead Writers Theatre Collective’s first foray into musical theatre, Oh, Coward! is positively dripping with the exact kind of old school charm that at least offers a short-term tonic for contemporary malaise.
Dead Writers is a company renowned for its attention to detail in recreating the look and feel of bygone ages, a quality that serves the production well. Even before the show begins, scenic designer Eric Luchen’s decadent Art Noveau re-creation of a European hotel suite is presented like a beautiful art piece to the audience, beginning the time machine effect of the piece before the first chord of the piano strikes.
The show itself is about two-thirds cabaret act and one-third heavily stylized and abstracted biography of British composer/playwright/actor/poet/singer Noël Coward, whose music is the centerpiece of the evening, performed by a company of three performers and an onstage grand piano.
The challenge inherent in a performance like this is to bring across the distinctly British humor of Coward’s writing to an American audience, reliant as it is on deadpan use of inference and verbal irony, without simultaneously making a joke out of the entire style of the British musical hall, which can seem to modern ears almost painfully twee. Thankfully, Director/Choreographer Cameron Turner has assembled an ensemble that is more than equal to the task.
Michael Pacas, an old hand at the cabaret style, turns in a solid, workmanlike performance. His evident ease on stage as well as his clear-eyed sincerity make him a delight to watch through both ballads and up-tempo numbers. His shining moment, however, is his Act 2 performance of “Nina,” where he commands the stage masterfully in one of the evenings most ingeniously staged numbers.
Pacas is well matched by Joanna Riopelle, whose vulnerability brings a level of human feeling to her torch songs, which were no doubt a favorite of the opening night audience. However, her performance of the patriotic anthem “London Pride” stands as perhaps the most beautiful acting work of the evening.
The standout, though, is Ian Rigg, whose timing is absolutely impeccable throughout his comedic numbers and who frequently draws attention in the production’s group numbers. He also is presented with the difficult task of taking on the role of Coward himself in the show’s brief segments of biography, a task he accomplishes without lapsing into impersonation or parody, while still creating a clear and recognizable character. His handling of the spoken verse that these segments often contain only adds to the impressive nature of his performance.
If there is anything to criticize in the production, it is in the script itself, whose song selection grows a bit somber as the second act draws near its end, causing a bit of a pacing drag. However, as this not a premiere, this is in no way the fault of the company or the performers and is admittedly a tiny flaw that dissipates almost as soon as it is noted.
All in all, Oh, Coward! succeeds entirely on the strength of both the performers and the source material. It is important to remember, and the play itself reminds the audience, that Noël Coward himself was considered in many ways a throwback to the Edwardian Era.
Much of his success was owed to the nostalgia and sense of a return to normalcy that his work brought after the horrors of the First World War and again after the Second World War. In the modern world, where the growing web of media can give the impression that the Blitz is always going on, it only seems natural that an audience is ready to hear his songs again.
Dead Writers Theatre Collective presents “Oh, Coward!” at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago, through September 18. More information and tickets ($40) are available here.