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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").

No sumup of the charms of this cornucopia of plays by one of the theater's most fascinating practitioners would be complete without mention Allen Moyer's delightful sets, all smartly contained within a giant gold picture frame, and Ilona Somogyi's eye-popping costumes. The WFT regular lighting and sound wizards, Rui Rita and Kurt B. Kellenberger have done their usual fine work. Except for the costume design which in Program B under the auspices of Linda Cho, the same design team serves both programs.

Whether Tonight at 8:30 brings back memories, or brings to life an era and style you've only heard about, it will undoubtedly have you tripping out of the Adams Memorial Theatre with a light step, or to quote from "Family Album"

May our touch of life be lighter
Than a seabird's feather,
May all sorrows as we pass
Politely step aside.

Other Noël Coward Plays at CurtainUp
Series B
Waiting In The Wings
Suite In 2 Keys
If Love Were All
Present Laughter

About Noël Coward
My Life With Noël Coward by Graham Payn with Barry Day, Coward's lifelong friend, lover and the executor of his estate. ( our review ).
Noel Coward: A Biography by Philip Hoare--the latest of the many Coward biographies with much detail about Coward's conflicts as a gay man in a homophobic milieu.

Reviews of Other Plays Mentioned
The Wild Party
TONIGHT AT 8:30 (Series A)
For Program B Production Notes, go here
"Family Album", Hands Across the Sea" and "We Were Dancing">
by Noel Coward
Directed by Michael Greif
Cast: Stephen Collins, Blythe Danner, Julian Gamble, Jack Gilpin, Jennifer Harmon, Denis Holmes, Alix Korey, Saxon Palmer, Jessica Stone; also David Turner and Robert Wu.
Set Design: Allen Moyer
Lighting Design: Rui Rita
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Sound Design: Kurt B. Kellenberger
Musical director: Charles Alterman
Orchestrations: Larry Moore
Choreography, "We Were Dancing, Sandra L. Burton
Williamstown Theatre Festival
Adams Memorial Theatre, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA (413/597-3400)
6/16/2000-7/022000 (8 pm: 6/16, 21, 22, 27, 30, 7/01;2pm: 6/18, 24, 25; 4pm
6/22 opening
Running time: 1 hour and 55 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 6/22 performance

The Broadway Theatre Archive

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