Noel Coward is notoriously difficult to do justice. Young New Zealander Jason Henderson, however, goes far in representing the artist’s wry, salty, deadpan attitude. Weary resignation is replaced by the ingenuous, non-plussed reactions of a younger protagonist, but these mostly work. Songs are framed by the amusing, well described vicissitudes of office temp employment. With this device, Henderson offers contemporary interpretation without compromising lyrical intention.
Boyish and nerd-like in the most natty possible manner, it’s easy to imagine Henderson suspended between different eras/sensibilities. A lilting tenor “Someday I’ll Find You” wistfully opens the show. Enunciation is nonchalantly pristine. Apparently Coward’s oeuvre kept Henderson from going mad in a series of pedestrian jobs where “the human condition was laid bare…As a receptionist, I needed two things, who they were and what they wanted. I was a leaf blower passing on a problem…”
Anyone who can render “That is the End of the News” making “lost lamb” sound colloquial while the song seems chatty is ok in my book. Hands point and fist, eyebrows dance. Christopher Denny’s arrangement implies more than states supporting Coward’s arch point of view: We are told that it’s dismal and dreary/To air our despairs,/We are told to be gallant and cheery/And banish our cares/So when fortune gives us a cup of hemlock to quaff/We just give a slight hiccup and laugh laugh laugh…Resonates, doesn’t it?
Observation of fellow office inmates is droll. One so-called superior had a sign on his wall saying: Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines. Nor does the good-natured foreigner understand the attraction of water coolers. Headphones kept him as impervious as possible “…Coward, Beethoven, Gershwin!” Denny’s treatment of “We Must Have Music!” manages to weave Gershwin themes into Coward’s composition without interfering. Henderson appears infectiously chipper. Really one expects him to jump up and down.
“Rather than names or dates, I remember various photocopiers…” is sheer stand-up. “It’s little wonder we’re working for machines” leads into “20th Century Blues” and “World Weary” with deft pianistic echoes of a jazz age party. WHAT—is there to strive for… Henderson exclaims arms at his sides… I want a horse and plow, chickens too/Just one cow with a wistful moo… is palpably rueful.
Dear Cecil – “you know Cecil don’t you – recruitment?” Henderson offhandedly asks Denny. The performer really good at glee. Though Coward never would have, giggles seem apt during “I Went to a Marvelous Party.” Each verse begins as if in italics, both arms raised and pointedly lowered. Facial expression recalling Elsie swinging from the chandelier is charming.
Here we turn a corner. Up till now, Henderson’s timing and arch restraint have kept the show Cowardish. Director Barry Kleinbort’s fingerprints are all over it. With “Nina,” however, the performer goes overboard teetering on Camp. Successive numbers suffer from bigness. With “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” subdued tone seems to return. Henderson looks at faces, asking his audience. Though not the songwriter’s implacable disdain, bristly irritation works…but it doesn’t hold. Suddenly the vocal swells.
Happily, “There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner,” arrives in fine, measured phrasing: Hurray, hurray, hurray!/Trouble is on the way./There are bad times just around the corner,/ There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky/And it’s no use whining/About a silver lining/For we know from experience that they won’t roll by…Gestures are minimal, just right, amplification tamped. There’s genuine sweetness in “I Like America.” Henderson, whose work visa is up in August sincerely wants to stay.
We sail from here with three unfussy numbers, two of them ballads, faithful to Coward’s more sentimental side. The performer imbues them with longing.
Jason Henderson is extremely talented. His voice is appealing, humor engaging. The artist can deliver patter with low key brio. A mix of sophistication and ingenuousness emerges fresh. Here’s hoping he has another shot at putting down roots in our community. It’d be fascinating to watch him grow as an artist.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Getting to Noel You: The Coward That Changed My Life
Christopher Denny- MD/Piano
Don’t Tell Mama
June 20, 2018
Again on July 2, 2018