The true magic of the holiday season is that, in spite of grotesque commercialism and ever-fading prospects for peace on earth, we continue to celebrate it with anything approaching sincerity.
This real-world mix of optimism and cynicism—buttressed by a respect for manners that simply insists you get dressed for dinner—is what makes A Marvelous Party: The Nol Coward Celebration a perfect evening of holiday theater.
Yet staging a revue of Nol Coward's snarky songs and prances amid the avalanche of Nutcracker Suites, Christmas Carols and infinite modern spins on the standard recipe for heartwarmth is risky, too—and not only because the only allusion to Christmas in the two-hour production is Coward's first name. Although a giant of the theater, Coward achieved his stature in the first half of the 20th century, before all entertainment was designed to be transmitted electrically and reproduced endlessly—thus, before attention spans were reduced microscopically.
Beyond that, Coward was definitely not a God-bless-us-everyone kind of guy. He reveled glibly in the hedonism of the good life—"My life has been one long extravaganza," he often said in a way that might have qualified him for a recurring role on Will & Grace—but the sharp twists of his phrases simultaneously revealed a dark realization that it was really all an illusion. Get a load of this particularly straightforward summation, sung to an indefatigably cheery melody, and just try to miss its relevance today:
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There are bad times just around the corner
And the outlook's absolutely vile,
You can take this from us
That when they atom bomb us
We are NOT going to tighten our belts and smile, smile, smile,
We are in such a mess
It couldn't matter less
If a world revolution is just ahead,
We'd better all learn the lyrics of the old 'Red Flag'
And wait until we drop down dead.
Marvelous Party relies entirely on the basics of show business, bravely trusting not only the enduring strength of Coward's catalog of songs and smartassery, but also the raw talent of three unknown singing-and-dancing performers, two of them often playing pianos, the lot of them occasionally accompanied by a low-key instrumental trio, all of it on a stage tastefully outfitted as an old-time parlor. The uplifting effect of the show—its holiday spirit—owes nearly as much to the triumph of this gamble as to the timeless delight of Coward's infectious rhymes and wicked insights.
The Laguna Playhouse snagged the revue for its West Coast premiere, complete with original cast—actor-pianists Carl Danielson and Mark Anderson, and the mysteriously magnetic singer-dancer Anna Lauris—after an award-winning run in Chicago. Key to the success of the production is the unselfishness of its bountifully talented performers in the face of incredible enticements. Despite rich material and ample stage time, they resist the temptation to put their personal stamps on the show, instead inhabiting roles and singing songs as written, never forgetting that the true guest of honor at this party is Nol Coward. Marvelous!
A MARVELOUS PARTY AT THE LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, 606 LAGUNA CANYON RD., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 497-2787; WWW.LAGUNAPLAYHOUSE.COM. TUES.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 & 7 P.M. THROUGH DEC. 17. $30-$65.