Broadway gets a lift from Noel Coward's light music

Oh Coward! Musical revue with words and music by Noel Coward. Devised and directed by Roderick Cook. Starring Mr. Cook, Catherine Cox, Patrick Quinn. ``Oh Coward!'' is venturing to Broadway in the same modest format that made it an Off Broadway hit in 1972. There is a boldness about this attempt to brighten the dark commercial theater scene. The sponsors are placing their faith in the old saying that it's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. In the content of ``Oh Coward!'' they have a candle of more than ordinary brightness.

Roderick Cook, who devised and designed the original potpourri, is again in charge and suavely in evidence at the Helen Hayes Theatre. A check with ``The Best Plays of 1972-73'' discloses that Mr. Cook has stayed true to his original inspiration and compilation. As before, the revue is a mixture of Coward in typical moods, from the antic to the romantic, the rueful to the sardonic, the sometimes rather rude to the meticulously articulate.

Covering the years 1925 to 1963, the Coward cavalcade includes such comic standards as ``The Stately Homes of England'' and ``Mad Dogs and Englishmen''; plus the romantic likes of ``If Love Were All,'' ``Mad About the Boy,'' and, of course, ``I'll See You Again.''

Cook also dipped into the plays and prose works of his protean author-actor for biographical snippets and passing observations, and Cowardesque dialogues. For instance: ``I think life is for living, don't you?'' ``It's difficult to know what else you'd do with it.'' Or, ``People keep telling me about something I've just missed. I find it very - very - restful.''

The text also records Coward's remark that he was ``born into a world that took light music seriously.'' The lovely light music of ``Oh Coward!'' proves the point, if proof were still needed. But the lightness can have an underlying poignancy and even melancholy. The darker tones have not been ignored in the compilation or in the two-piano-and-percussion accompaniment by musical director-pianist Dennis Buck (with Rene Wiegert's arrangements).

Cook sets the tone and pace for the performance at a level not yet equaled by his younger co-stars. Patrick Quinn handles his comic and romantic assignments moderately well, but Catherine Cox proves less than adept at capturing the Coward style, let alone the appropriate accent. Helen Pond and Herbert Senn, the original designers, have created the a la mode d'ecor for the new production, with lighting by F. Mitchell Dana and costumes (from flamboyant to soign'e) by David Toser.

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