Arts & Events

Theatre Review:“I love criticism just so long as it's unqualified praise.” –Noël Coward

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday June 01, 2010 - 12:20:00 PM
Molly Bell & Carl J. Danielsen hoof their hearts out at The Marvelous Party playing thru June 26 at Center Rep.
Molly Bell & Carl J. Danielsen hoof their hearts out at The Marvelous Party playing thru June 26 at Center Rep.

This past Sunday, I opted to spend my 1,492nd sunny weekend afternoon in a darkened theatre, so I drove from Oakland through the Cold-to-Hot tunnel to the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek to see The Marvelous Party at Center Rep. Bay Area Critic Circle awarded this company best musical last year, so I wanted to see what was up out there.I found I could joyously give the late Sir Noël Coward the criticism he so loved! 

When I was a little boy and urged my pop to come play catch with me around noon on a Saturday, my wise father, fearing for his red-headed son’s sunburn, would always sing, “Only Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Mid-Day Sun.”By Coward, of course.When my great uncle and aunt who played vaudeville would visit, they would duet on lovely airs that I later found were Cowardly.A few years ago, I played Charles in Blithe Spirit, then directed Design for Living (his bisexual, triad comedic romance) at THTC, and deeply invested my time in listening to all of Noel’s lyrics to use them for entr’acte music.As NC quipped about critics, “I have always been very fond of them . . . I think it is so frightfully clever of them to go night after night to the theatre and know so little about it." So I fancy that I was “in the know” about this revue. 

All quotations are from Coward’s indefatigable, perceptive jeux d’esprit and his very deep well of songs.Charming melodies, but for the most part just a ditty on which to hang his bon mots. The players sing these very complicated, syncopated, internally rhymed lyrics seemingly in one voice, which is no mean feat. It is a revue, a look-back, on the incredible life and creativity of an iconic figure, as we picture him somewhere at a London drawing room cocktail party, looking dapper and gay in smoking jacket while balancing cigarette holder and martini, and speaking something unbelievably clever to his rapt minions as his haunting melody “Mad About the Boy” plays in the background. 

The set places us perfectly in a rich dark blue and gold Art Deco foyer or dance floor of a grand hotel’sballroom, with ever-changing backdrop from blue sky to pink neon showing through the double French doors.The accompanying band plays in the upstage alcove while varied red ruffled drapes turn to starry lights. They even change chandeliers. The lighting never calls attention to itself, but seamlessly serves the scene right down to the follow-spot operator who never loses aim. 

It is as polished and posh as is due a Coward revue.All three Equity actors show us what it means to be professional.The words of Coward and all his bon mots are articulated in full studied British Received Pronunciation; when they speak, though they hit all the right vowel changes, articulate their final consonants and vary their pitch appropriately, it’s still an American actor doing a very good imitation.When they sing all pretense disappears, and you relax into their comedic shenanigans or sophisticated torch songs. 

Tenor Mark Anders and Baritone Carl J. Danielsen look British and both play it with the panache, easy confidence, and mastery of the material that comes when one is the “deviser” of the piece.Their “2 Pianos 4 Hands” was a hit a few years ago; they toss off their piano virtuosity as if it’s all-in-good-fun. 

Molly Bell’s blonde marcelled hairdo and versatile soprano recalls the fashion and musical styling of the period.Ms. Bell is probably now a candidate for best actress in a comedy/musical; she ends the first act with a tour de force monologue about her latest show with a combination of mimicry, timing, and acrobatics that raised the energy at the interval and had the audience murmuring about how good they were.“Watching her energy just exhausts me,” one lovely elderly lady commented while standing in line for the ice cream they served up at the apron of the stage—something they do at every English theatre. 

The choreography of Patricia Wilcox is mostly subtle with perfect gestures and dancing in place, until she breaks out with surprises that hike our spirits:Molly Bell’s Charleston captures the joy and sex of the Lost Generation’s exuberance, Anders and Danielsen trade off coats and piano playing in a perfectly rehearsed shtick.As Coward said, “I like the kind of spontaneity you get with five weeks of rehearsal.” 

The first act is English Music Hall all the way right down to the sign on the easel announcing the next act and the Cockney in his derby leaning against the lamppost. The plotting of the variety of selections to change moods that lift and then soothe our spirits is smoothly planned.In the midst of the first act they boost us with a highlight of some hoofing of the first caliber, not just kick/ball/change but some buck’n’wing in a Fred and Ginger-like duet between Carl Danielsen and Molly Bell (pictured above).  

There is no investment in trying to believe the illusion, and everything changes every three minutes or so.However, the barrage of wit and cleverness is somewhat overwhelming even for those in the know, so I recommend purchasing some liquid lubrication (booooze!) in the lobby that you can take into the theatre after the interval.One last Coward quotable: "I will accept anything in the theatre . . . provided it amuses or moves me. But if it does neither, I want to go home." Everybody came back from intermission. 

Definitely worth the price of admission; if I’d seen it in NYC for 100 USD, I’d be all aflutter. 

A MARVELOUS PARTY:The Noël Coward Celebration presented by Center Repertory Theatre, Michael Butler, Artistic Director and Scott Denison, Managing Director playing at Margaret Lesher Theatre, Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA 94596  

Wed 7:30 pm, Thu-Sat 8 pm, with Matinees Sat & Sun 2:30 pm through June 26. 

Tickets: or 925-943-SHOW (7469) 


Words and Music by: Noël Coward; Devised by: David Ira Goldstein, Carl J. Danielsen, Mark Anders and Patricia Wilcox.Directed by David Ira Goldstein, musical direction by Brandon Adams; musical staging by Patricia Wilcox; musical arrangements by Carl J. Danielsen; s cenic design by Bill Forrester, sound design by Jeff Mockus, lighting design by Kurt Landisman, props management by Laraine Gurke, costume design by David Kay Mickelsen, wigs by Judy Disbrow.Stage Management by Corrie Bennett 


With: Mark Anders, Molly Bell, Carl J. Danielsen. 


John A. McMullen II is the newest member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. 

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