Chicago Theater Review: OH, COWARD! (Dead Writers Theatre Collective at the Athenaeum Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 27, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


A bravely Noël Coward musical retrospective set in an intimate Art Deco cabaret—what could be more intrinsically suave and sophisticated, equally knowing and feeling? A first musical comedy revue from Dead Writers Theatre Collective and the second installment in their “Mad About the Boy” season, Oh, Coward! (originally devised by Roderick Cook in 1972) is a delightful three-person tribute to an effortless entertainer. A gay man with many designs for living, Coward (1899-1973) may have coined the phrase “Strange how potent cheap music is” but his own songs were never the bargain basement variety.

Howard Pfeiffer, Michael Pacas, Joanna Riopelle and Ian Rigg in OH, COWARD!

Putting a price on pain as much as pleasure, Coward’s bittersweet ballads testify to his sharp-tongued love of gossip, scandal and sublimated sex, as well as his world-weary sangfroid, a joie de vivre tempered by winsome, je ne sais quoi regrets. His fusion of passion and poignancy is encapsulated within his credo anthem, “(Hey Ho,) If Love Were All”: All he has is a “talent to amuse,” as if that’s not enough.

Joanna Riopelle in OH, COWARD!

Here it’s more than satisfactory. Utterly transforming the Athenaeum Theatre’s 80-seat, third-floor theater, Eric Luchen’s elegant music room is a patented setting for lush love songs and lilting waltzes. Joanna Riopelle, Michael Pacas and Ian Rigg present over two dozen delectable numbers, including an infectious Edwardian “music hall” medley and a diverting “greatest hits” opening offering. We get salacious, cunningly detailed patter songs like “In A Bar on the Piccola Marina,” “Family Album,” “The End of the News,” “Why Do the Wrong People Travel (When the Right People Stay Back Home)?,” “The Passenger’s Always Right,” “Mad Dogs and Englishmen (Go Out in the Noonday Sun),” and “(I’ve Been To) A Marvelous Party” (more spoken than sung by Ian). Catty and cutting, these catalogue satires are more than witty period pieces: They’re musical furnishings for the most delightful drawing room you’d want to visit. “Private lives” were never so public.

Ian Rigg and Joanna Riopelle in OH, COWARD!

But, when his upper lip was less stiff and he was not cocking a snoot at snobs, Coward could wax sentimental: Joanna richly honors the unforced patriotism of “London Pride,” a hymn to a flower that blossoms into a serenade to a city. Her “Mad About the Boy” (an exact vocal equivalent to Lorenz Hart’s equally homoerotic “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”) teems with unrequited ardor. Ian’s “Let’s Say Goodbye” says it all, while Michael’s “You Were There” incarnates heartbreak.

Michael Pacas in OH, COWARD!

Alternating 1930s sporty garb with evening wear (created by Patti Roeder), the songsters regale us with the bitchy “(Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage), Mrs. Worthington,” unleashing all the cautionary disdain in a very wicked ditty. Displaying Coward’s cosmopolitan parodies, “Nina,” cavalierly crooned by Michael, is a South American rouser worthy of Carmen Miranda at her fruitiest. And surefire standards are warmly rendered: “Someday I’ll Find You,” “Sail Away,” “Zigeuner,” “I’ll Follow My Secret Love,” “Dance Little Lady,” and “A Room with a View,” each an unalloyed delight. It’s hard to imagine, as he wrote these inevitable melodies, that Coward ever struggled for the next note—they come so easily and sound so right.

Ian Rigg, Joanna Riopelle and Michael Pacas in OH, COWARD!

Not all is perfection on this small and busy stage. Sometimes Howard Pfeiffer’s piano accompaniment overwhelms the lyrics all too easily when the singers project as if they’re in a parlor, not a theater. And at least two and a half numbers are spoken rather than sung, a curious transformation at best. Anyway a bit more bravura will solve this audibility liability, and, in any case, there’s no concealing the Coward charm, a marvel of tact, tears, and torch songs that’s as irresistible as a blithe spirit could deliver.

photos by Emma Meyer

Oh, Coward!
Dead Writers Theatre Collective
Athenaeum Theatre, 
2936 N Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat (and select Wed’s) at 7:30; Sun at 2:30
ends on September 18, 2016
for tickets, visit Dead Writers

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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