PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Brief Encounter — A Coward With Thunderbolts
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway premiere of the acclaimed music-infused production of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter.
So this is the way the season begins — not with a bang but with a barrage of British accents. The first batch to rush in where Broadway angels notoriously fear to tread is a Coward — Noel by name — with his arched and terribly, terribly civilized Brief Encounter, and it's followed two days later by another of Lee Hall's up-from-the-mines-of-Northeast-England sagas, The Pitmen Painters, and on Oct. 3 by the Shavian palaver and pronouncements of Mrs. Warren's Profession. The Brief Encounter that alighted Sept. 28 at Studio 54 is quite a different animal from the one that Sir Noel and his director, David Lean, fashioned into a classic screen romance from Still Life, one of the acts in Coward's Tonight at 8:30. That one, in its repressed, pressed-rose sort of way, told of the chance meeting of a young doctor and a suburban housewife, both married with kids, who fall in love and struggle to consummate their feelings (the time, the poor dears, is 1945). He removes a speck of grit from her eye, and they then teeter from cinder to sinner, with Rachmaninoff's "Second Piano Concerto" thundering away like hell on the soundtrack to underscore their romantic misery. Is it any wonder that The History Boys could — and did — quote chapter and verse from the film?
This new edition, drastically overhauled by adapter-director Emma Rice to force the feelings to the top — and then over the top — is a kind of emotional annotation of what was sadly left unsaid in the original film.
"Oh, I love the Britishness of it, the reserve, the unspoken passion," Rice readily confesses, "but, of course, I decided to direct this show after I've passed that point in our lives of loving somebody we shouldn't love and having a love that's impossible so it was a very simple recognition that I have for the show. I'm in there."
She can't, for the life of her, remember the first time she saw the film, but it was as a child and always on the telly. "It's the sort of movie that's on a Saturday afternoon or when you're out sick from school. I've never seen it in the cinema."
What would Lean think of this? "I would hope he would like it, and I'd like to think Noel Coward would as well. They are his words, give or take a very few exceptions. This show is done only in reverence to the film and the words. I hope there's nothing they could be offended by, but we're all storytellers and this is the 21st century. It's a really famous film, so I wanted to honor the fact that it was a film. I also knew that this is a piece of theatre. I love theatre more than anything. I love theatricality so I wanted to use the two, and vaudeville and comedy are a great homage to theatre."
Rice, the artistic director of Kneehigh Theatre in England where the show took shape and then took off, led the hip-hip-hoorays at the opening-night party at Planet Hollywood. "At Kneehigh," she told the crowd, "we happen to have a name we call ourselves privately, which is The Church of Lost Causes. Often it feels like nobody's noticing or nobody's watching or nobody cares. And tonight really proves that to be not the case. I like the word Church because, really, this show is based on such a commitment to the belief in theatre and the belief in other people and the belief in community. We love making theatre — all of us — because it's about communion — a communion of an audience watching a show, a communion of a group of artists making a story together, a communion of working with an amazing artist like Noel Coward and a communion of working with a lovely company like Roundabout."
Special drinks at the party were provided by Rokk Vodka and named after the play's star-crossed lovers. You had your choice of "Alec's Frustration" or "Laura's Temptation," and, if you mixed them, you'd have Rokkmaninoff ringing in your ears.
All of the actors in the plays are making their Broadway debuts with this production, save for the newest and youngest member of the cast, Gabriel Ebert. Just out of Juilliard, he has already understudied Eddie Redmayne's role in Red. A long-stemmed gangly youth, he romances the tea-room assistant (a deliriously comical Dorothy Atkinson) and helps himself to an assortment of Coward ditties — nine in all — that have been gingerly sprinkled throughout the proceedings (some of them arranged and/or composed by Stu Baker).
The remainder of the cast was aboard when Brief Encounter touched down briefly for seven weeks at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn last September. Tristan (don't you love it?) Sturrock, who has been playing the momentarily wayward Dr. Alec for three years now, applauds his new port o' call: "It's magic to be in Studio 54 — y'know, the history, the way the show sits in the space." Changes have been slight since Brooklyn, he says. Basically, the railway tearoom, which is the play's principal set, has been extended over the footlights to a series of tables at the base of the stage. "It allows the action to spill forth more easily so maybe there's even a stronger sense of connection."
An interesting side effect of this addition is that black silhouettes are constantly dashing out of the audience and onto the Technicolor of the stage, producing a "Purple Rose of Cairo" effect. "That's something we always wanted to do right from the very beginning, and we referenced that film as well — the idea of going in and out of the film because it's an homage to 'Brief Encounter' the film. It's also how the love affair develops — they go to the pictures together — and so it's absolutely right that it has that sense of going in and out of film. It's a combination of all those elements."
Hannah Yelland, who plays his opposite number, the equally romantically tormented Laura, has her favorite new special effect: "They have added another chandelier, so the two of us get to swing now — not just me. It has been great fun."
In this vaulted romantic moment, the two levitated with love, swinging from their respective chandelier and eventually kissing in midair, showered with a blitz of glitz, which isn't as difficult as it looks, she insists. "That has a momentum of its own."
Yelland has seen Celia Johnson's original Laura — she was the New York Film Critics' choice for Best Actress in the '40s — and she concedes that they have very different styles and very different demeanors. "Laura is passionate, longs to be free, has a child-like spirit which Alec awakens in her. It's a wonderful journey to go on every night."
He, too, appreciates the use of the hall. "It's grown at Studio 54, which has a beautiful chocolate-box proscenium-arch built in 1921. I think the show works so much better there. The show has worked everywhere, but, when we did the U.K. tour, it always worked better in the little old proscenium-arch theatres, and the show came alive. It really did. Studio 54 is a fantastic place for it here. Not only is it a great proscenium-arch theatre, it has a lovely, naughty history from the infamous '70s."
Coward aficionados came in an assortment of shapes and professions. Cabaret impresario Donald Smith was in that number, and, not so incidentally, is "doing a Noel Coward night at The Cabaret Convention on Oct. 8, with all kinds of wonderful people — Christopher Fitzgerald, Elaine Stritch, Jennifer Sheehan, Christine Ebersole, Steve Ross . . ."
Sean Malone came in from Genesee Depot, WI., where he runs The Ten Chimney Foundation, headquartered at the summer home of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne where Coward frequently holidayed (he had his own room there). "Coward came to Ten Chimneys often and enjoyed Alfred's cooking, and they enjoyed his music," Malone said. "It was a friendship that was very special to the three of them."
Barry Day, a Coward buff and biographer as befits a Trustee of The Noel Coward Foundation, arrived in a state of keen anticipation, despite two previous viewings. "I've seen it twice," he confessed unabashedly. "I saw it in Leeds when it was on its tour in 2007 and I saw it in London when it first played there. It's very, very faithful to the original material. We need a bit more romance in our lives, I think."
Alan Brodie, the attorney who holds the keys to the Coward estate and thus allowed all of this to come to pass, was clearly cheered by the results and recalled director-adapter Rice's first enthusiastic pitch to him about the project: "She was very passionate about what she wanted to do and talked a lot about Noel Coward and keeping it in the spirit of Coward, so we decided to take the risk. Also, we wanted to reach younger audiences, which it has. Wherever it has played in the U.K. and the U.S., the audiences have been much younger than you will often find for Coward plays. Another thing we did was open up the catalog to her on the understanding that everything in the piece would be Noel Coward-written — the songs, the poems, he wrote everything. Emma just rearranged the material."
Such a Coward fanatic is Gavin Lee that he asked for, and got, the night off from Mary Poppins. The original Bert of London and Broadway resumed local operations five weeks ago after a year-and-a-half tour and finds himself again co-starring with the original London flying-nursemaid, Laura Michelle Kelly. He was with his large-with-child wife, actress Emily Harvey. "We were both on the tour, and we had the best time," Lee says. "She understudied five of the principals so she was on for someone nearly every night." As for the blessed event, "it's a girl, and she's due Thursday week — in nine days. We have a couple of names that we're toying with, but we're going to wait till she pops out. Then, we will know."
Others who graced the first red-carpet of the new Broadway seasons were Melina Kanakaredes of "CSI: NY"; Margaret Lacy, set to co-star with Olympia Dukakis for Roundabout's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore; Margaret Colin of "Gossip Girl"; Victor Garber, coming down from the big screen of "You Again"; Dana Ivey, still high from her Happy Days triumph at Westport and looking forward to Roundabout's upcoming The Importance of Being Earnest opposite Brian Bedford's Lady Bracknell; Kate Baldwin, fresh from her own Westport triumph, I Do! I Do!; Claudia Shear; producer-comedienne (there's only one) Jamie deRoy; Tony winners Debra Monk and Michael Cerveris of "Fringe" (the TV variety); Tovah Feldshuh, bracing for her upcoming turn in Love, Loss, and What I Wore; Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormick (she's recording the lead voice in a new Ken Burns documentary on the Dust Bowl); playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Christopher Shinn; perpetually employed Reed Birney, poised to pounce Oct. 6 in Tigers Be Still, Chandler Williams, now of "The Good Wife"; Nick Wyman; producer Liz McCann; keeper-of-the-Kaufman-flame Anne Kaufman Schneider, anticipating this season's Broadway revival of her dad and Moss Hart's You Can't Take It With You, produced by La McCann; MaryLouise Burke with costumer Martin Pakledinaz, the latter dividing his time between Arena Stage's Oklahoma! and Broadway's Anything Goes ("I'm bi-East Coastal!"); The Public's Oskar Eustis; directors Michael Wilson and Walter Bobbie; Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham and Jason Fuchs.
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