ST. PETERSBURG — You don’t to be familiar with Noel Coward’s work to enjoy his songs and wit, says Steven Flaa, who is directing “A Marvelous Party! The Noel Coward Celebration.”
This musical revue, which has the feel of an intimate cabaret show from the 1930s or ’40s, opens Friday at the American Stage Theatre Company and runs through Dec. 22.
Four actors and a piano player invite the audience to join a smart, sophisticated café society party like the kind the creative people attended in fashionable cafés and restaurants in New York, Paris and London during Noel Coward’s prolific years (1920s-1940s).
The British-born dramatist was also an actor, composer, lyricist, critic, essayist and painter. He was known for his flamboyant style — top hats and tails; smoking jackets and cigarette holders.
His popularity as a playwright peaked in the mid-’40s, and he reinvented himself as a cabaret performer in the ’50s and ’60s. This revue includes 33 of his songs as well as clever lines from his plays and other writings — all performed by actors Larry Alexander, Melissa Bayern, Lizzie Hagstedt and Matthew McGee.
“He was remembered in America more from his plays than his songs, which are incredibility witty and a little on the naughty side,” says Flaa, who has helmed several American Stage productions.
Among Coward’s more memorable plays is “Blithe Spirit,” which became a 1945 film directed by David Lean and starring Rex Harrison as a man haunted by the ghost of his first wife. Other works include “Brief Encounter,” “Private Lives” and “Easy Virtue” (1924) which was remade into a 2008 film starring Jessica Biel and Colin Firth.
Among the songs in the “Celebration” are “Mad About the Boy,” “I’ll Follow My Heart,” “The Stately Homes of England,” “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party” and “There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner;” as well as Coward’s skewering of stage mothers, “Mrs. Worthington,” and his caustic reworking of the lyrics in Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It.”
“He was also known as an actor and movie star and newspaper columnist, and we celebrate all of that,” says actor McGee. “His songs can be the funniest biting satire at times and then romantic and poignant at other times.”
McGee says he likes Coward’s risqué side. “It plays to my wink, wink, nudge, nudge sensibility,” he says. “We invite the audience to join in the party to have a frothy, bubbly entertaining time.”
Actor Hagstedt says she was not aware of Coward’s work but now has a respect for his musical talents. “I am constantly in stitches, laughing during rehearsals,” she says. “From that period, you won’t find a better lyricist. He has zingers and double entendres. There are some great romantic melodies such as ‘If Love Were All’ and truly goofy songs.”