When Noel Coward's musical Sail Away hit Broadway in 1961, it was dismissed as old-fashioned compared to the other shows then playing (Camelot, Carnival and Milk and Honey, for instance).
Inasmuch as the story is set almost entirely on an ocean liner, one can see why critics might have seen Sail Away as a throwback to the likes of Cole Porter's Anything Goes, the quintessential 1930s musical. But the sophistication of Coward's work retains its relevance; he was aware of his audience when writing the piece, and both the script and the score poke fun at Anglo-American relations.
And as Ian Marshall Fisher's Lost Musicals presentation at the Lilian Baylis Theatre proved, the work provides the perfect blend of Coward's trademark witty lyrics with the exuberance of the Broadway sound.
The plot deals with the wistful romance of Mimi Paragon, a middle-aged divorcee who works as hostess aboard the ship, and the much younger Johnny Van Mier. Around them move a motley crew of smaller characters, from the aged couple Mr and Mrs Sweeney (who explain in 'Bronxville Darby and Joan' that the longevity of their marriage has made people overlook the fact that they hate each other) to Johnny's controlling mother and an eccentric author by the name of Spencer Bollard. Although the story is not particularly profound, the dialogue sparkles with wit throughout, and the successful romancing of an older woman by a younger man provides a refreshingly forward-looking outlook on relationships.
Musically, there's much to admire. Mimi has various witty showstoppers, from the opening 'Come to Me' (referring to Mimi's aria in La bohème) to the closing 'Why Do the Wrong People Travel?', very much in the extravert Broadway tradition, as is the slightly martial title song. More mellow love songs appear in the form of 'Where Shall I Find Him?', 'Later than Spring', 'Go Slow, Johnny' and 'Don't Turn Away From Love', while 'A Beatnik Love Affair' uses elements of a calypso. The satire of 'The Little Ones' ABC' and 'The Passenger's Always Right' shows Coward at his most clever, and the whole thing is brilliantly glossy and shrewd without losing the emphasis on entertainment.
It's magnificent how Lost Musicals manages to produce such excellent results on a shoestring budget. The cast wears evening dress and sits in a semicircle when not performing, using the script and making do without props or sets. It probably doesn't sound promising on paper, but the lack of technological distraction and tinny amplification foregrounds the performances; all of the actors engage deeply with the material, and although it was a shame not to be able to hear Irwin Kostal's orchestrations, Chris Walker's solid accompaniment kept the evening moving nicely. And the studio space of Lilian Baylis Theatre is the perfect intimate setting for a show of this sort, mounted with a small ensemble of actors.
The role of Mimi was originated by Elaine Stritch, but I much prefer Penny Fuller as an actress. She made the character knowing rather than cynical and was high-spirited rather than coarse. She also did the wistfulness of the character rather well, and while her vocal reserves made for some underwhelming moments in the songs, her suitability to the role was such that one hardly noticed the deficiency in the singing.
Around her, the excellent supporting cast included Henry Luxemburg's touching Johnny Van Mier, Ursula Smith's no-nonsense Mrs Van Mier, Stewart Purmitt as a scene-stealing comic Spencer Bollard, Terence Bayler and Vivienna Martin as the elderly Sweeney couple, James Vaughan as a polished Joe the Purser, Josh Canfield as a strong-voiced Barnaby Slade and Anna Lowe as a poised Nancy Foyle.
Next year's season has yet to be announced, and unfortunately last night was the final performance of Sail Away, but if the enthusiastic audience reaction was anything to go by, the musical theatre connoisseur should not miss an opportunity to attend Lost Musicals' future offerings.
Visit Lost Musicals' home page here.
Previous reviews of musical theatre:
Arabian Nights on Sepia Records
The Music Man at the Chichester Festival
Candide at ENO
Betwixt! The Musical at the King's Head
My Fair Lady Original Broadway Cast on Naxos
Gypsy on Broadway with Patti Lupone
Funny Girl at the Chichester Festival
Kismet at ENO
On the Town at ENO