Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Theater Review: Noel Coward’s ‘Hoi Polloi,’ Presented by Musicals Tonight

The most-performed and fondly remembered plays by Sir Noel Coward leave audiences with the kind of giddy feeling they get from champagne. Hoi Polloi, a never-performed musical of his, is smoother and sweeter. Musicals Tonight, chosen by Coward’s estate for its world premiere, didn’t decontaminate viewers jaded from this year’s elections with this production, which closed a week ago Off-Broadway on Theater Row after a short run. But it did make them smile.

When Coward wrote this musical in 1949, he was trying to appeal much more to the man on the street than to the man in the penthouse of his more celebrated plays. The upper-class couple here, Julian and Linda Curtis, throw a costume ball to which they kindly invite lower-class Pinky and Harry. But Julian and Linda are a colorless pair, without the bourbon or bon mots that always circulated around Coward's characters in Private Lives, Design for Living and Present Laughter.

Hoi Polloi is, at heart, then, a tribute to the common people of London, a city that had suffered grievously in WWII. It was, in fact, continuing to suffer the aftereffects of the war when Coward wrote this, with rationing of some items still in effect. The general austerity of the city made increasingly problematic the economics of the kind of musical that Coward had made his own in the pre-war period.

Before the show could be fairly launched, then, Coward decided to scrap it. He recycled some of its songs later musicals, such as Ace of Clubs and Sail Away. (He never again had a major new success with new musicals, though, or, in fact, with comedies. He kept the fire of his celebrity burning in his last two decades by reinventing himself as a debonair, martinet-dry cabaret performer.)

By presenting this musical, then, Musicals Tonight deviated slightly from its mission since 1988: In this case, it didn’t so much revive a musical by masters of the form (as it did with two productions I blogged about previously, Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon and Jule Styne’s Hazel Flagg), but in fact unearthed one. I wish I could say that it has unearthed a classic, but, even with a game, talented cast, it has only produced a mildly diverting, secondary work by a theater craftsman who undoubtedly wished he could have more time and resources to solve his problems.

The plot is reminiscent of On the Town and My Fair Lady: a slight boy-meets-girl tale in which a young sailor, Harry, meets and falls in love with an ordinary London manicurist, Pinkie, and the complications that ensue when, disregarding social convention, she accepts the Curtises' invitation to  their costume party

With a plot so tissue-thin, success depends on one or more of the following; tunes you can’t dislodge from your head, clever lyrics, incredible stagecraft, or scintillating choreography. Coward couldn’t consistently provide the first two; Musicals Tonight simply can’t afford the third; and the fourth, for whatever reason, never materializes on stage.

And so, director Mindy Cooper made do with her cast of 10. The ones who appeared to best advantage here were Katrina Michaels as the winsome Cockney Pinkie; Johnny Wilson, capturing Harry in all his exuberance about falling in love and misery about possibly losing it; and Marci Reid as the philosophical flower seller Barmey Flo, who made the most of the affecting “Sail Away.”

Hoi Polloi never really took flight, but it was hardly a bad way to while away two hours, and I’m sure that Musicals Tonight's guiding force, Mel Miller, who has revived 90 musicals over nearly two decades, will soon find another show worthy of his evident affection for this theatrical form.

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