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|A CurtainUp Review
Tonight at 8:30 (Series A)
Series B Opening night at the Williamstown Theatre Festival felt a bit like the eventful 1936 season when Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward first appeared in Tonight At 8:30. A small combo playing dance tunes. Champagne and chocolates for early arrivals. The audience in a festive mood, ready to be amused by the man who prided himself on knowing how to amuse.
Lawrence and Coward are long gone from the stage of life. Gone too is the world depicted in the nine plays that have been variously re-assembled, three at a time (actually there were ten and the tenth and least known is part of WTF's Series B). According to Coward's friend and biographer Graham Payn, unless finances so dictated, Coward studiously avoided revivals on the theory of "never boil your cabbage twice". Still, I think Coward would agree that the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Tonight at 8:30 is more caviar than cabbage, especially since the company has gone all out. Instead of one evening from the "8:30" collection, theater goers are being treated to two alternating productions: Program A, focusing on comedy, is under the direction of Michael Greif; choreographer Ann Reinking is in charge of the more dance oriented Program B. Coward would also appreciate the heady extravagance of staging each evening as if it were running for a full season instead of the a fleeting summer theater schedule.
In case you wondered how the director of Rent would deal with the drawing room wit and elegance, not to mention the various time periods of the three plays he's chosen for his program, you can relax. He has settled into Coward country as easily as into New York's East Village. Instead of trying to impose a contemporary flavor on the program, he has wisely opted to keep nostalgia and Coward's brand of comedy front and center. That means the plot that drives each play is pretty much a one note joke -- a not-so-beloved patriarch's death ("Family Album"); a socialite whose drawing room is a revolving door of old and new friends and thus a natural set-up for a case of mistaken identities ("Hands Across the Sea"), and an extra-marital affair destined to remain unconsummated. What elevates skit to wit is the playwright's hallmark concise, staccato dialogue and his ability to add a few affecting insights. Mr. Greif's grouping makes the most of the latter in that it builds on the move from the constrained Victorian era of the mourners assembled in "Family Album" to the fun-loving move predominating 1930s London society and the anything goes (but not really) freedom bred by the seaside setting away from home.
The parts originally played by Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence are recreated with great charm and flair by Stephen Collins and Blythe Danner. Both, along with other members of the cast, break into song often enough to warrant the tag "plays with music". Mr. Collins sings as well as he acts. He's a fine dutiful son, and husband and, finally, a likeable would-be marriage wrecker. Ms. Danner is not particularly outstanding as a singer, but it hardly matters, especially during her brilliant turn as the ditzy hostess in "Hands Across the Sea".
The standout in the excellent supporting cast is Alix Korey whose Madeline True was a show stopper in the recent Manhattan Theatre Club musical The Wild Party. She plays three different characters with wry, timed to perfection humor and also does very well with the second between act musical interlude. Speaking of those interludes,
Mr. Greif has astutely dipped into the Coward song archives. "Hearts & Flowers" and "World Weary" serve as a bridge between the first two plays and "Sail Away to physically take us from 1930s London to Samolo (the author's mythical outpost of the then tottering British Empire's outpost described as being "somewhere near Ceylon"). The interludes also serve as a link between Greif and Reinking's visions for their programs. Reinking's program, besides dancing, also uses familiar tunes for transitional interludes ("Someday I'll Find You" and "The Dream Is Over").
May our touch of life be lighter