Although it fizzled on Broadway, “Sail Away” made a star of Stritch, for whom it was written, and indeed it is a vehicle form-fitted to her acerbic charm. Even in 1961 she did not possess a beautiful voice or the bland prettiness of an average ingenue, and so little has been lost with the passage of years: Now as then, she croaks more captivatingly than most singers sing, and she infuses her performance as Mimi Paragon, the ship’s put-upon cruise director, with a deadpan cynicism that’s corrosively funny, even when she’s racing through the dialogue almost dismissively.
When Stritch slows down to savor Mimi’s ripostes, or digs into the show’s pointedly satirical songs — “You’re a Long, Long Way From America,” “Useful Phrases,” “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” — all traces of diffidence disappear, and she revels in the lyrics and jokes with a beaming pleasure that is ageless. Her performance is a long lesson in timing given by a comic master.
The musical’s plot is negligible, but it mixes the sweet and the sour in disarming measures. Its chief romantic entanglement seems fairly fresh by musical comedy standards: Mimi falls for a mother-coddled younger man, but resists his suit with a hard-won wisdom that’s hardly standard for Broadway tuners. A younger, less star-crossed union provides tender counterpoint, while most of Coward’s gags concern sparring among the ship’s caricatured passengers.
There are no sets and costumes, so fans expecting a full-scale “Encores!” production will be disappointed. But there are also no microphones, and so the lyrics and jokes aren’t boomed at us at a volume that robs them of nuance. And what a rare pleasure it is to hear songs that leave you waiting in delighted suspense for the thrill of the rhyme around the corner (even if you know it by heart). New York has so far been remiss in joining in the Coward celebrations; hats off to Carnegie Hall for pushing out the boat.
(MUSICAL REVIVAL IN CONCERT; WEILL RECITAL HALL, CARNEGIE HALL; 268 SEATS; $ 61)
NEW YORK A Carnegie Hall concert presentation of the musical with book, music and lyrics by Noel Coward. Directed by Gerald Gutierrez.
Musical director, Ben Whiteley. Opened, reviewed Nov. 4, 1999. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.
Joe ..... Jonathan Freeman
Mimi Paragon ..... Elaine Stritch
Elmer Candijack ..... Bill Nolte
Maimie Candijack ..... Anne Allgood
Alvin Lush ..... Paul Iacono
Mrs. Lush ..... Alison Fraser
Sir Gerard Nutfield ..... Herb Foster
Lady Nutfield ..... Gina Ferrall
Johnny Van Mier ..... Jerry Lanning
Mrs. Van Mier ..... Jane White
Barnaby Slade ..... James Patterson
Mrs. Sweeney ..... Jane Connell
Mr. Sweeney ..... Gordon Connell
Elinor Spencer Bollard ..... Marian Seldes
Nancy Foyle ..... Andrea Burns
With: Danny Burstein, Tony Capone, Dale Hensley, Jennifer Kathryn Marshall, Tanya Desko, Alexandra Jumper.
When it comes to musical revivals, Broadway will have its work cut out for it this season trying to erase potent memories of Carnegie Hall's brief resurrection of Noel Coward's 1961 "Sail Away." The run of 10 performances ended Nov. 13 at the small Weill Recital Hall, but theater insiders will be buzzing about this enchantingly mean-spirited diversion, and the incomparably dry performance of Elaine Stritch that is its dazzling center, for some time to come.
Stritch, reprising the role she created on Broadway, is the production's ace in the hole, even if she took a few minutes at the reviewed performance to enter fully into its spirit. But she is far from its only pleasure. The entire cast is strong, from the deliciously grandiose Marian Seldes, playing an imperious purveyor of purple prose; to the poised young soprano Andrea Burns as her niece and secretary, the show's love-seeking ingenue; to Jane and Gordon Connell as an unhappily married older couple who sing of their mutual spite in a breathtakingly bitter song that was cut prior to the Broadway run, "Bronxville Darby & Joan."
But Coward himself, whose centenary is being celebrated through the end of the year, shines brightest of all. If its book, though serviceable, is mere flotsam, the witty lyrics and jaunty music of this nautical musical make most current Broadway offerings look like dinghies bobbing helplessly in the wake of a sleek, chic old cruise ship, or ugly tankers lumbering alongside it self-importantly.
Indeed, "Sail Away" may be a musical whose ship has finally come in, to continue a nautical metaphor that will now be retired. When it premiered on Broadway in 1961, its cheerfully nasty tone must have nauseated self-satisfied middle-class patrons fed on the sweeter flavors of Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Coward was obviously a little out of touch. The very people in the audience were the chief target of the show's bilious satire: Surrounding a story of romance aboard a cruise ship heading to Europe are a cartoon gallery of variously pompous, ill-bred and boorish American tourists. Little more than a decade into the postwar boom, it's not likely that a large American audience had the perspective to find Coward's unbridled dismay at their maurading manners amusing.
Now we can laugh more easily, although some of the lyrics, even in our post-P.C. age, are beyond the pale. (One of the funniest songs, a sendup of the uselessness of useful-phrase books, features this line: "The Chinks and the Japs and the Finns and Laps were reduced to a helpless stammer ...") But camera-wielding Texans and rubes who imagine that the Parthenon is a ripoff of a Pennsylvania train station are more familiar targets now, and Coward's linguistic felicity is so exhilarating that even the more vicious songs can thrill us with their verbal wit. A random sample, from the tellingly titled "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?": "What explains this mass mania/to leave Pennsylvania/And clack around like flocks of geese/demanding dry martinis on the isles of Greece?"