by: Peter Haas
A famous photo of Noӫl Coward shows him dressed in formal wear, teacup in hand, standing in the Las Vegas desert outside the Sands Hotel. The year was 1955, marking the beginning of a fresh career for him – in cabaret. He was already world-famous, revered for a colorful life that included creating, directing and performing in his own plays and musicals, composing hundreds of songs, writing short stories and poetry, creating a novel— and, in the process, becoming a world-wide symbol of sophistication and wit.
These talents were given tribute in a warm-hearted, smartly produced, thoroughly delightful multimedia evening, “A Coward Cornucopia,” presented in mid-March by The Mabel Mercer Foundation, at The Laurie Beechman Theater.
The art of cabaret was in excellent hands as a cast of both young and seasoned talent took the stage. With the Mercer Foundation’s Artistic Director, the sparkling KT Sullivan, as hostess (and co-producer of the evening, with the Foundation’s Managing Director, Rick Meadows), the evening began in unusual fashion: KT “pre-introduced” the first seven performers at once, permitting them, as they succeeded each other onto the stage, to provide a smooth flow of song after song. Up first: singer/pianist Eric Yves Garcia, with “Nina From Argentina,” complete with appropriate Spanish accent. Dennis Buck then took over the piano, providing warm accompaniment to: Shana Farr, who mastered the fast-pace and internal rhymes of “Bad Times Just Around the Corner”; D.C. Anderson, looking the country squire, in tweeds, with “Alice Is At It Again” and “Poor Uncle Harry”; the tall, elegant South African-born Amra-Faye Wright, performing “You Were There”; and Liam Forde with “There’s a Right Way and a Wrong Way” and “Wait a Bit, Joe,” ending with a gentle “”Most of Every Day.”
The evening took an educational turn with a tour of Coward’s life, conducted with the aid of archival slides of Coward’s performances and private moments. Our guide: raconteur and cultural historian David Garrard Lowe. Humorous, witty and clearly fond of his subject, Lowe tracked Coward’s journey from his stage debut as a child to his beginnings as a playwright and to his subsequent successes as a screen actor, television performer, writer of poetry and novels, author of two autobiographies, and, among other triumphs, his role as producer, script writer, music scorer, co-director and star of the war-time motion picture, In Which We Serve.
The evening returned to music, with Dennis Buck and Mark Hummell sharing piano duties for Shana Farr, singing “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart”; Marissa Mulder with “Somewhere I’ll Find You”; actor Jeffrey Hardy with a spoken rendition of “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party”; Lauren Fox in a moving performance of Coward’s war-time song, “London Pride,” and the return of Ms. Faye-Wright, who hoisted herself atop the piano and performed an animated “In a Bar on the Piccolo Marina.” Lights up, for a moving wind-up: the cast and audience joining voices in “I’ll See You Again.”
With Kenny Bell’s customary warm overseeing of the Laurie Beechman’s food and service, the evening marked a high spot in the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s championing of what might be called the Great International Songbook. The organization’s founder, the late Donald Smith, looking down, might well have approved of the spirit, music and production of “A Coward Cornucopia.” One can almost hear him say, in the words of a Coward song: “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party.”
Photos/Video: Russ Weatherford