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Writers’ Theatre hosts a marvelous party of Noël Coward favorites

Kate Fry, John Sanders and Rob Lindley, from left, in Writers’ Theatre’s “Oh Coward!”

Kate Fry, John Sanders and Rob Lindley, from left, in Writers’ Theatre’s “Oh Coward!”

 

UPDATE: Extended through April 18. Also, see more Coward in Chicago.

Noël Coward (1899–1973) is one of the lasting symbols of the glamour and wit of the pre-World War II era. Playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, director, producer … but more than those: As Time magazine said of him, “Coward’s greatest single gift has not been writing or composing, not acting or directing, but projecting a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise.”

Writers’ Theatre’s production of “Oh Coward,” a revue of Coward’s music, captures the iconic Coward style beautifully. Devised by Roderick Cook and premiering off-Broadway in 1972, “Oh Coward” was the last Coward show to be staged during “The Master’s” lifetime. Although Coward is best known for plays such as “Blithe Spirit,” “Private Lives” and “Hay Fever,” he also wrote a prodigious body of music.

This collage of Coward songs, interspersed with snippets of poetry and prose, is more of highly theatrical cabaret show than straightforward musical theater, which Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet has delightfully acknowledged. His clever recasting of the intimate Books on Vernon backroom theater space as an elegant 1930s nightclub, complete with glossy black grand piano and tiny cocktail tables, creates an ideal setting.

Kate Fry, John Sanders and local cabaret veteran Rob Lindley do a lovely job with the songs and recitations, embodying the opening “Bright Young People,” and creating an infectious illusion of bygone times that lasts until final encore of “The Party’s Over.” Music Director Doug Peck, at the piano, has also provided fine arrangements of some of the songs, most notably an exceptional version of “I Travel Alone.”

Well-known songs like “Sail Away” and “Mad Dogs and Englishman” alternate with more obscure gems like “The Stately Homes of England” and dance-hall ditties. Director Jim Corti’s staging evokes Coward’s blithe and sometimes brittle humor in unexpected and appealing ways, as when all three actors waltz together in “A Room with a View.”

(One style quibble: In the second act, the men come back in wearing white dinner jackets. As the song list turns tropical at that point, that’s appropriate. But Designer Rachel Anne Healy has also given them white ties and wing-collared shirts, a fashion mismatch the debonair Coward would never have been caught dead in.)

This isn’t a biographical show — and I disagree with those who make profound pronouncements about Coward’s character based on a collection of songs this highly self-invented character wrote largely for theatrical purposes — it’s merely a Marvelous Party … for Coward lovers, Anglophiles, cabaret fans and irony enthusiasts.

Writers’ Theatre’s ‘Oh Coward!’

Theater: Writers’ Theatre at Books on Vernon in Glencoe.

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 6 p.m. through March 21 April 18; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Dec. 9, Jan. 6, Feb. 3, March 10 and 17. Call for exceptions, pre- and post-show discussions.

Tickets: $40–$60.

Dining: For a quick and casual meal before the show, Vernon’s on Vernon, across the street from the theater, offers sandwiches, salads, pizzas and Italian entrees. For more formal dining, you’ll have leave downtown Glencoe.

Deals: For more formal dining, head to nearby Winnetka, where French Restaurant Michael offers theatergoers 10 percent off on a minimum $75 check.

Follow Writers’ Theatre on Twitter for day-of-performance “Tweet Seats” discounts.