Sally Darling received the prestigious MAC Hanson Award this year which is presented for Excellence in Cabaret who has never been nominated in the past. After a long theatrical career starring in road companies and then directing several musical revues of Cole Porter and Noel Coward, she returned to cabaret a few years ago.
This week, at Don’t Tell Mama, Sally Darling is presenting “Totally Noel..with A Little Bit of Me” with award winning composer Matthew Martin Ward as music director and vocal collaborator. A sold out house filled with cabaret performers and songwriters greeted them with loud applause before they even performed one number. I have read all the autobiographies, letters, plays and short stories of Coward but Darling was to tell us things I had never known before about Coward. After a striking performance of “Nevermore” (from Conversation Piece), Darling and Ward did a quick medley of all the famous Coward songs they weren’t going to sing! This included “I’ll See You Again,” “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart,” “If Love Were All,” and many others that other cabaret performers sing. Then Darling and Ward got down to business, and she used the funny “Mrs. Worthington” as a thread throughout the act, fully dramatizing the message of that emphatic song which was written in response to a stage mother‘s submission of her daughter to become a Coward protégée. Then Ward led Darling into a full version of the title song of “Sail Away,“ back and forth with its many choruses.
Darling told us about Coward when traveling with a male companion in Burma, he composed “Mad Dogs and Englishman” which Darling sang with great clipped diction and not a syllable dropped. She also told us about one critic who wrote that he couldn’t stand to look at him; Darling had also received the same review in her past. His response “Press On!”
Ward himself beautifully sang “Matelot,” the song written for Coward’s long time companion, Graham Payn, and Coward’s first post WWII musical revue Sigh No More.
“Uncle Harry,” a wild number about a missionary among the cannibals, was a Coward favorite when he was entertaining the troops during World War II. It was the first number Coward performed on the classic TV show he did with Mary Martin.
Darling chose to sing the society woman’s version of “Mad About The Boy,” as well as the star struck teenager’s version, but Ward himself did the male version which Coward never performed because of its risqué topic of homosexual love.
The two of them changed pace with the acrid song “The Brownsville Darby and Joan,” from the London Sail Away, which is about the couple who have hated each other since their wedding night but are ideals to everyone else on the ship.
Unknown to me, Darling revealed that Coward, David Niven, and Leslie Howard were spies during World War II. Because of his oath of secrecy, the British public hated him and he was subject to hate when he returned to England. He determined to write plays like Blithe Spirit and the movie which he starred in and directed (with David Lean) In Which We Serve. When he sat in a bombed out Victoria Station he noticed a flower blooming through the pavement. He named that flower “London Pride” which became his most patriotic song. Darling’s performance was moving and a fitting climax to the show which will be remembered for season‘s honors this year. Darling and Ward are a superior example of structure, narrative, and musical delivery.
Sally Darling‘s “Totally Noel..and A Bit of Me“ repeats at Don‘t Tell Mama, 343 West 45 Street, on Friday April 22 at 7 PM and Wednesday, May 11 at 7 PM. Reservations are strongly recommended. 212-757-0788 after 4 PM or go to www.donttellmamanyc.com