The backstory of how Noel Coward’s 1954 musical response to Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” finally got to the stage in its intended form proves far more dramatic than the show itself. Restoring the operetta was clearly a labor of love on the part of Barry Day, who rescued portions of the score ditched from the original production to accommodate a leading lady who wasn’t up to the musical demands. The restoration job also presented a stiff challenge for helmer-designer Tony Walton, who had to wrestle the unwieldy material into shape for a big cast in a small space. But the good guys don’t always win in the theater, and the result of their noble efforts is a prettily sung but lifeless museum piece.
Lady Windermere, you may recall, created a social scandal in Wilde’s play by throwing a lavish ball and inviting Mrs. Erlynne, a woman of dubious reputation who has “very determined ideas about married life.” The notorious lady, who turns out to be Lady Windermere’s own mother, handles her social ostracism with grace and wit, and at great cost to herself saves her virtuously married daughter from a romantic alliance that would doom her to exclusion as well.
The women in the Windermeres’ exalted social circle are well aware of the injustice of the Victorian double standard that would cast a woman like Mrs. Erlynne out of society for the kind of moral indiscretions their own husbands commit with impunity. And in the striking opening number of this bandbox musical, Coward lets them express their outrage with a forthrightness they could never get away with in Wilde’s play.
“Why are men permitted to sin and sin again/Say they’re sorry and then begin again?” these wronged wives sing with spirit. “Why is it the woman who pays and pays/And pays and pays and pays/To the end of her days?”
Whatever the failings of the original Mrs. Erlynne, Mary Illes, a concert soloist with a nice set of pipes, has both the musical chops for the role and enough dramatic know-how to suggest the emotional conflicts that make the character so intriguing. And in her bold red gown, with her chin held high, she cuts a splendid figure as a sophisticated woman of the world bored with the charms of St. Petersburg (“dull without the snow”), Berlin (“much too polyglot”), Rome (“dreadfully hot”), Vienna (“all those vocal Viennese”), and Athens (“far too Greek”).
Coward was said to have taken great pride in his graceful and amusing score, and the vocally adept cast does its musical best to convey his worldly sensibility. Kristin Huxhold’s delicate soprano brings the proper wistfulness to Lady Windermere’s yearnings for the lover she must renounce, and Kathleen Widdoes’ robust attack on the chorus-like character of the all-knowing Duchess of Berwick lightens the burdens of the plot.
But the performances rarely rise above concert-level precision, leaving the songs as undeveloped as the singers’ sketchy characters.
Of graver consequence to the show, however, is its conception as a musical with visual, rather than dramatic treats. To be sure, the scene tableaux designed by helmer Tony Walton are lovely to look at, with the women swirling about in gorgeous ballgowns against the backdrop of lush red draperies and a single glittering chandelier. But the minuscule dimensions of the stage confine the action to dull dances in repetitive patterns. And while the singers have been coached to articulate every lyrical bon mot, the dramatic content of the songs is left largely unexplored.
If this neglected operetta is to get a real chance to be seen and heard, it probably will have to wait for a full production.