STAGE REVIEW : Some Fun With Coward's 'Talent to Amuse' at Back Alley

"A Talent to Amuse" was how Noel Coward described his specialty. It's also the title of a new Coward revue at the Back Alley Theatre.

Using two men and one woman to sing Coward isn't a particularly novel idea. In fact, it's the same format that was followed by Roderick Cook's "Oh, Coward!," which was a hit in the '70s.

However, "A Talent to Amuse" isn't just a Coward revue. It's subtitled "A Musical Portrait of Noel Coward With a Few Sketches by Cole Porter."

Interspersed among the 31 Coward selections in the show are half a dozen by Porter. And the text has Coward briefly paying homage to his American colleague.

In this context, Coward's "Nina," the tale of an Argentine lady who refuses to "begin the beguine," to quote Porter's immortal phrase, assumes the air of a rollicking transatlantic jab. And both Coward and Porter contributed lyrics to this show's version of "Let's Do It."

This display of wits-across-the-sea creates some mild fun and, intentionally or not, allows us to conclude that Porter was the superior melodist. But Porter's contribution to the evening is so sporadic that it's hard to figure out its point--unless, of course, it was simply to distinguish this show from "Oh, Coward!"

Otherwise, the dramatic arc of "A Talent to Amuse" is well focused. The first act begins with Coward at his bitchiest ("Why Must the Show Go On?," "Mrs. Worthington") and gradually moves into more tolerant character sketches ("Nina"). This pattern, silly to serious, is repeated in a section on travel (from "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" to the angelic-sounding "Sail Away").

The second act more or less reverses the pattern, moving from grand romantic sentiments ("Someday I'll Find You") to the disillusionments of romance ("Never Again") to jokes about love affairs (Valerie Miller does "Mad About the Boy" strictly for laughs, flaunting a red boa and a thick but difficult-to-place accent), concluding with a selection of party songs.

As the Coward surrogate, Mark Bartos demonstrates a delight in dishing as well as a knowing smile in the show's softer moments. The other singers, Miller and director Rick Roemer, have more of an American air about them (and, in fact, they do the more prominent Porter contributions). All of them handle lyrics with confidence and flair, and they're ably accompanied by Philip Orem at the grand piano.

Roemer's staging occasionally falters (when he sings of "your fabulous face," it almost looks as if he's gazing at Bartos, which certainly wasn't the intent), but generally the trio's moves make sense.

Nancy Evans dresses up the singers in proper fashion, but the John Ivo Gilles set is too drab for this show.

"A Talent to Amuse" isn't as exciting as Roemer's staging of "Bittersuite" on this same stage. But there is talent here, and it amuses.

Incidentally, please don't hum along with the singers, as the woman on my left did through much of the second act. While this may be proper behavior at, say, a hootenanny, it isn't quite right for a Coward revue.

At 15231 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys, Saturdays at 3 and 10 p.m., Mondays through Wednesdays at 8 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $15-$18; (818) 780-2240.

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