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‘Coward’s Women’ is a witty, intelligent pleasure

Writing for the Strib earlier this month, Larry Fuchsberg noted that Puccini’s “La Bohème” is “one of the few repertory operas that should have been longer.” The same could be said for “Coward’s Women,” the new musical revue with songs by Noel Coward that opened at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio this week.

In fact, the show’s length is my only cavil. The hour flew by in a flurry of smart songs, intricate lyrics, wonderful singing by Erin Schwab and Maud Hixson, and enjoyable arrangements by musical director and pianist Rick Carlson.

“Oh, good,” Schwab said when I spoke with her after the show. “We left you wanting more.”

Fifteen minutes more would have been ideal. Then again, my head might have splintered from the sheer weight of Coward’s words — tricky, tongue-twisting, madly rhymed and multisyllabic.

15 songs from ’20s, ’30s
The show features 15 songs, most written in the 1920s and 1930s, interspersed with writings by four women in Coward’s life: his mother, Violet; his secretary, Lorn Loraine; and his friends Gertrude Lawrence and Marlene Dietrich. Longest (and perhaps in need of a tiny trim) is proud mum Violet’s description of the Coward family tree.

The production moves briskly and keeps the focus on the songs. No costume changes; not a lot of moving around on the part of the singers or band members; enough creative lighting to keep things interesting. Simple images fitting specific songs are projected on a screen behind the band: a moon, palm trees, outlines of Broadway theaters. Two songs use footlights that will have you seeing stars if you’re sitting on either side of the stage. (I saw a preview performance; those might have been softened since.)

The opening features both singers and Carlson solo on the piano. The other band members — Jendeen Forberg on drums, Keith Boyles on bass, Gary Schulte on violin — enter after the second song but don’t start playing until four songs later. At that point, Schulte’s violin becomes a third voice.

Among the many delights: Noel Coward’s R-rated lyrics to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It.” Forget the birds, the bees, and the educated fleas. Starting with the first chorus (“He said the Belgians and Greeks do it/Nice young men who sell antiques do it”), this is a whole new song, and it’s more about sex than falling in love, with a layer cake of subtexts. (“We even left some of the lyrics out,” Maud said afterward.) At the end, when we learn that “even Liberace — we assume — does it,” Carlson takes a Liberace moment at the piano, complete with chords and glissandos. It’s silly fun.

An effective pair
I wondered if the two singers’ styles would complement each other or clash. No worries. The normally cool and sophisticated Hixson cuts loose; Schwab, who can be a belter, tones down. They’re a well-suited pair, most notably during the merging of two hilarious Coward tunes, “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” and “World Weary.”

As a bonus, the songs include the verses, the storytelling set-ups that were once part of popular song but are now often omitted during performances. 

More memorable moments: Carlson’s wry, ironic spoken-word take on “Twentieth Century Blues,” with Schulte’s violin doing the singing. Hixson’s lively and teasing “Nina,” about the senorita who refused to dance — a bravura performance. Schwab’s over-the-top weariness in “World Weary.”

The pacing is solid, the range satisfying: ballads mixed with speedier tunes, humor alternating with longing and regret (“Someday I’ll Find You,” “I’ll See You Again”). The 65 minutes pass in a flash. We left happy.

“Coward’s Women,” conceived and directed by Michael Todaro, continues through Saturday, April 3, with performances Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 7:30 and 10 p.m., and Saturday at 7:30 and 10 p.m. Dowling Studio, 9th floor of the Guthrie ($22-$30). Buy tickets online or call 612-377-2224. TIP: Take advantage of the Guthrie’s special promotion: the play “Brief Encounter” in the McGuire Proscenium theater at 7:30 p.m. plus “Coward’s Women” in the Dowling at 10. Friday and Saturday only. Call 612-377-2224 and ask for the “Coward Combo” ($40).

Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar, blogs about jazz at Bebopified  and tweets about jazz on Twitter.

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