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THEATER REVIEW : 'Oh, Coward!' Spans the Decades : Conejo Players Theatre offers a fast-paced musical revue featuring works of the British writer.

September 09, 1993|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Doubtless created as an evening's entertainment, there's something about "Oh, Coward!" that makes the musical revue eminently suitable for a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

The show collects songs, epigrams and aphorisms by English writer Noel Coward, who in his time was the court jester of the grass-court tennis set. Outside on the green would be the best place to see "Oh, Coward!" but the Conejo Players Theatre is comfortable and cool.

Better known throughout the British Empire (such as it is, these days) than in the United States, Coward (1899-1973) was a playwright, screenwriter, actor, cabaret performer and raconteur ". . . born into a generation that still took light music seriously." Many of his best-known songs from the late '20s through early '60s, together with snippets of dialogue, were collected for this revue by Roderick Cook in the early '70s; it first played off-Broadway in 1973, shortly before Coward's death.

For this series of four Sunday matinees, director Ken Alexander has assembled a cast of six attractive young performers--none is English, though one is Canadian--and steps in for a couple of unbilled cameos. It's a fast-paced show, packing a couple of dozen songs (many in medleys) into less than two hours' time.

Probably wisely, Cook concentrated on Coward's more humorous numbers, including the one detailing the ill-fated attempt of "Uncle Harry" to become a missionary, the one admonishing "Mrs. Worthington" not to put her relentlessly untalented daughter on the stage, and Coward's observation that only "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" foolishly brave the noonday sun.

Those songs were performed cheerfully, if a bit lethargically, at Sunday's opening. Scott Guy is a performer particularly suited to this sort of material, and he and the taller, more robust Brian Nassau combine to form a comic pair that's a bit reminiscent of Crosby and Hope. And Guy's spoken version of "A Marvelous Party" is probably the show's high point. Of Daniel Sullivan's featured spots, wait for his tribute to "Nina," the Argentine vamp who simply refused to dance.

Of the women, Jana Kovalivker shines on "Mad About You" (incorporating a touch of "Mad About the Boy"), though she drifts entirely out of her English accent before finishing; Debi Lewis is especially impressive on "Uncle Harry," done as a music hall routine with Scott Guy, and Beverley Staunton delivers a quietly sentimental rendition of "London Pride," a song written the morning after a particularly devastating 1941 blitz of Coward's hometown.

The voices could be louder--especially during the songs with humorous lyrics--so it's advisable to sit near the stage. On the other hand, musical director and pianist Barbara Howard does a fine job with her four-piece band (Jeff Paul on synthesizers, bassist Steve Bringleson and drummer Ken Dayton).

Choreographers Debi Lewis and Kevin Calvin don't give the cast more to do than they can handle. Crystal St. Romain has designed colorful costumes to alternate with the black-tie attire with which Coward is perhaps most identified.

A couple of youngsters at the opening-day performance didn't seem to be too bored, though the woman who showed up with an infant in her arms probably regretted having done so.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Oh, Coward!" continues Sunday and Sept. 19 and 26 at the Conejo Players Theatre, 351 S. Moorpark Road, in Thousand Oaks. Shows are at 2:30 p.m. only. All seats are $5, sold at the door on a first-come, first-served basis, with no advance reservations taken. For further information, call 495-3715.

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