Lost Musicals – Noël Coward’s Sail Away

Sail Away
Book, lyrics and music by Noël Coward

Mimi Paragon – Penny Fuller
Joe the Purser / Alvin / Ali – James Vaughan
Mr Elmer Candijack – Christopher Killik
Mrs Mamie Candijack – Libby Christensen
Mrs Lush – Annatt Bass
Johnny Van Mier – Henry Luxemburg
Mrs Van Mier – Ursula Smith
Sir Gerald Nutfield – David Phipps-Davis
Lady Nutfield – Leanne Howell
Barnaby Slade – Josh Canfield
Mr Sweeney – Terence Bayler
Mrs Sweeney – Vivienne Martin
Nancy Foyle – Anna Lowe
Spencer Bollard – Stewart Permitt

Chris Walker – Music Director / Piano

Ian Marshall Fisher – Director
Stefan Reekie – Music Staging
Stewart Nicholls & Rowland Lee – Music Restoration

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 15 June, 2008
Venue: Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London

Sir Noël Peirce Coward (1899-1973)Noël Coward wrote “Sail Away” in 1961 specifically with the USA in mind. It was the first time he had not written a show for London, where his plays and musicals were always premiered. Unfortunately he was probably about thirty years out of date, as the American audiences’ reception was not a hearty one. It ran for just 167 performances, although did better when it opened the following year at the Savoy Theatre in London where it notched up over 250 performances, but even that wasn’t a total success. It played Melbourne in 1963 but has not been seen in London since its original production, although Just the Ticket Productions, a group dedicated to reviving rare British musicals, did stage it in Woking in 1998. Now Ian Marshall Fisher and his Lost Musicals seasons present “Sail Away” at Sadler’s Wells.

The show did not have a great start in life. Coward found it difficult telling three separate stories in one show. He had written the songs for a soprano actress but the general feeling was that the show sounded more like operetta than musical comedy. When choreographer and director Joe Layton saw it, he advised Coward to make some changes. He merged the soprano part and another role into one part for Elaine Stritch who was already in the show. She played Mimi Paragon, a cruise ship hostess guiding a group of disparate travellers on a Mediterranean holiday. Mimi, a former actress, American and divorced, has her own problems which are exacerbated by the fact that one of her party, a man much younger then herself, Johnny Van Mier, takes a shine to her, which makes Mimi fall foul of her swain’s mother. Romance is in the air elsewhere as another young blade, Barnaby Slade, falls for the secretary (Nancy Foyle) of a famous novelist (Spencer Bollard) to whom the writer is dictating his latest pot-boiler. The rest of the cruise mates are an assortment of couples, young and old, including an English aristocrat. Most of the show is set aboard the cruise ship Coronia, with stops in Tangier and at the Parthenon.

It’s a slight story in which Coward makes light fun of American tourists who, presumably, at that time were fair game for satire. From a score that contains mostly wistfully romantic love songs (‘Where shall I find him?’, ‘Something very strange’, ‘Don’t turn away from love’) there are some pleasant point numbers that show that Coward, if not at his best, had not lost his sense of humour in ‘Useless useful phrases’, ‘Why do the wrong people travel?’, in which Mimi bemoans the fact that her compatriots ought really to stay back home, and ‘Bronxville Darby and Joan’, about an ageing couple who have been married for years but hate one another.

This is light fare and even for 1961 a little old hat. Remember that Coward was writing five years after “My Fair Lady”, and in that time Broadway had seen Frank Loesser’s “The most happy fella”, Gene de Paul’s “Li’l Abner”, Jule Styne’s “Bells are Ringing” and “Gypsy”, Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” and “West Side story”. Rodgers & Hammerstein had written “Flower Drum Song” and “The Sound of Music”. “Camelot” was still running in 1961, along with Jerry Herman’s “Milk and honey”, and Frank Loesser’s “How to Succeed in Business…” opened in the same month as “Sail Away”. Could an Englishman, even one with Coward’s reputation, beat the Americans at their own musical game? Although it was a personal success for Elaine Stritch, “Sail Away” did not appeal to audiences used to more exciting fare. So obviously dated did it seem, that one critic at the time commented that Coward had written the best new musical of 1936!

It is in the performances, however, that the show can succeed and here it works quite well. Many of Coward’s characterisations rely on stereotypes, so we have a young man with his grasping mother (Johnny and Mrs Van Mier), a young couple of holidaymakers (the Candijacks), a blustering old booby (Sir Gerald), the ingénues (Barnaby and Nancy) and a rather camp specimen, the writer Spencer Bollard (who might have been Coward himself). Henry Luxemburg as Johnny makes an awkward role palatable and has a good strong voice for the numbers ‘Later than spring’, ‘Go slow Johnny’, ‘Don’t turn away from love’ and the title song. Josh Canfield as Barnaby and Anna Lowe as Nancy bring gusto in their duet of ‘If you want me’. Terence Bayler and Vivienne Martin are a hoot as the ‘Bronxville Darby and Joan’, Mr and Mrs Sweeney, and they get the biggest laughs when they admit “we’re an old married couple and we despise one another, with a thoroughness approaching the sublime”. James Vaughan presents a trio of hilarious characterisations with his usual panache as Joe the Purser, Ali the Arab and even a small child called Alvin, while Stewart Permitt is at his outrageous best as the pretentious writer Bollard.

In the leading role of Mimi, Penny Fuller, herself a veteran of Broadway (“Applause”, “Cabaret”, “Rex”) gives a good performance as an independent, wacky lady who has been around the block and is wary of committing herself to a younger man. She gives the numbers a touch of razzmatazz, although without the edge that Stritch gave to the songs and the character. She is good at numbers such as ‘Useless useful phrases’, ‘The little ones’ ABC’ (a send-up of ‘Do, re, mi’) and ‘Why do the wrong people travel?’, complete with a baton-twirling finale, but the signature sharpness that Stritch gave to the songs is missing. However, like all the rarities in the Lost Musicals series, it is worth catching up with “Sail Away”. You may never see it again – not even in Woking!

  • Sail Away is at the Lilian Baylis Theatre at Sadler’s Wells on Sundays 22 & 29 June and 6 & 13 July
  • Tickets on 0870 737 7737
  • Lost Musicals

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