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.