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A CurtainUp Review
After the Ball

This very lucky lady kept her reputation spotless
Otherwise this play would be plotless

---from one of the rhymed couplets with which the Duchess of Berwick, the updated production's narrator/chorus, periodically steps out of character and comment to the audience.
 Kathleen Widdoes
Kathleen Widdoes
In 1954 NoŽl Coward, in an attempt to repeat his long-ago success with operettas such as Bitter Sweet (1929), decided to do so by working with another writer's material, something he'd never done before.. He chose Oscar Wilde, another notable wit, as a partner. The result was a musical version of Wilde's popular turn-of-the-century, melodramatic send-up of Victorian mores, Lady Windemere's Fan, retitled After the Ball.

It was a good idea that misfired. Coward and Wilde weren't all that well matched. It wasn't a total disaster (it played 188 performances at London's Globe Theatre), but Coward himself realized that After the Ball was more flop than high flier.

According to Barry Day, Coward's long-time companion and estate administrator (who also happened to be in the original as Mr. Hopper), the problem was less Coward's adaptation and music than the staging and casting. The mis-direction was by the noted director Robert Helpmann of The Red Shoes fame. The casting problem was caused by a leading lady whose voice had gone sour which necessitated cutting out some prime songs.

With the encouragement of the Irish Rep's Charlotte Moore and Ciarin O'Reilly, Day has now restored the cut songs and made other editorial changes. To trim the libretto, he has made the busybody Duchess of Berwick a narrator/chorus who periodically steps out of character to comment on what's happening to the audience in rhymed couplets which rarely rise above doggerel. Still, it's a clever device which, according to Day, Coward once used himself when faced with similar production problems.

Director/designer Tony Walton has done his utmost to make this new After the Ball work. He's staged it with as much pizzazz as can be expected from a concert-sized budget. The costumes are lush and true to the turn of the century setting. Behind the main prop, a red velvet curtain, a scrim depicting London's Hyde Park hides the one-man orchestra (music director/pianist Mark Hartman). As an added fillip several musical cast members join in with flute (Elizabeth Inghram) and cello (David Staller).

Greatly to his credit, Walton is also the first director who's given careful consideration to this venue's somewhat awkward semi-thrust configuration. The set, such as it is, has been angled towards the often neglected segment of the audience sitting in the thrust section at the side. Walton has minimized positioning actors near the bulky mid-stage colunn which makes them visible only to the main seating area, though there's no way to eliminate this problem altogether

The fact that Kathleen Widdoes, who plays the couplet-spouting narrator when not in the story, is an actress and not a singer is less a problem than the enfeebling effect all these trimming efforts have on the play and its characters. The more musically experienced cast members, even though several (including the title character) have good voices, somehow fail to bring much verve to their roles, nor do they render Coward's songs to their best advantage.

Two actors whose acting stands out from the otherwise disappointing ensemble are Greg Mills as Mr. Hopper and Drew Eshelman as Lord Augustus. David Staller is a better cellist than actor or singer. His Lord Darlington, who gets the best Wilde lines (for example, "a cynic is the man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing") is decidedly underwhelming.

Even though the libretto retains some of Wilde's epigrams (according to Wilde lore, he wrote Lady Windemere mostly as a coat rack on which to hang his mots), After the Ball still doesn't serve either Wilde or Coward particularly well. The show does gain momentum eventually, but not until well into the better and shorter second act.

What about the songs? There are some pleasing ballads and amusing ensemble numbers for the various gentlemen and the jaunty "Something on a Tray." A song most likely to linger in your memory, "Never Again, " is actually interpolated from another show (a 1932 revue called Words and Music).

The show's overall appeal will depend largely on your enthusiasm for all things NoŽl Coward and/or Oscar Wilde. As After the Ball isn't Coward's best work, neither is the more frequently revived Lady Windermere's Fan, Wilde's most sophisticated and polished work.

The plot, in case its details have slipped your mind revolves around an ornate fan presented to Lady Winderme by her husband as a birthday present. After learning that Lord W. has been calling on a Mrs. Erlyne, an older woman of questionable reputation and making substantial payments to her, she refuses his request to receive the woman at a ball in their home. Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Erlynne is really the mother who abandoned Lady Windermere when she was an infant. The melo in the drama develops when the misunderstanding prompts Lady W. to run away to would-be lover, Lord Darlington's apartment. Mrs. Erlynne intercepts her note to Lord W. and persuades her to return home -- which she does, though she forgets her fan. When Lord W. after a night out with the gentlemen ends up at Darlington's digs and spots the forgotten fan, Mrs Erlynne once again saves the day. All ends well. The Windermeres are reunited, the young and older woman become friends though Mrs. Erlynne nobly keeps her identity secret.

When the gentlemen sing "Oh, What a Century" they couldn't foresee the social and sexual revolution ahead. But for all the changes wrought since Wilde, more than likely inspired by his own conflict about leaving his family to follow his sexual inclinations, wrote this fluffy comedy of manners, sexual indiscretions continue to cause headline-making scandals. That's why Wilde's story has a certain timelessness. Unfortunately, while he ended his play with the Windermere marriage on solid footing, the Wilde-Coward marriage, at least as presented here, remains less than idyllic.

Reviews of Wilde's plays
Lady Windemere's Fan (Toronto) 
Lady Windermere's Fan (London)

Reviews of other Coward works
Present Laughter
Present Laughter (Stratford Festival of Canada)
Private Lives(London and Broadway)
Suite In 2 Keys
Tonight at 8:30 Part A (Berkshires)
Tonight at 8:30 Part B (Berkshires)
The Vortex (London-2003)
The Vortex(New York-2001)
Waiting In The Wings

A musical by NoŽl Coward, based on Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan
Edited and with additional material by Barry Day
Directed and Designed (sets and costumes) by Tony Walton
Musical Direction by Mark Hartman
Choreography by Lisa Shriver
Cast: Cast: Kristin Huxhold (Lady Windemere), Mary Illes (Mrs. Erlynne) , Paul Carlin (Lord Windemere), David Staller (Lord Darlington), Collette Simmons (Lady Agatha), Greg Mills (Mr. Hopper), Kathleen Widdoes (Duchess of Berwick), Josh Grisetti (r. Dumby), Drew Eshelman (Lord Augustus), and Elizabeth Inghram (Lady Plymdale).
Lighting Design: Brian Nason
Assistant Director/Designer: Kelly Hanson
Hair Design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Running time: Approximately 2 hours plus intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St, 212-727-2737
From 12/07/04 to 1/29/05; opening 12/16/04.
Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM; matineesSaturday and Sunday at 3:00 PM.
Tickets: $45
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 14th press preview
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Why Is It the Woman Who Pays? / The Ladies
  • I Knew That You Would Be My Love/ Lord and Lady Windermere
  • Mr. Hopper's Chanty / Hopper, Dumby, Lord Augustus, Duchess of Berwick
  • Sweet Day/ Lady Windermere
  • Stay On The Side Of Angels / Lord Darlington
  • Stay On The Side Of Angels (reprise) / Lord Darlington
  • Oh, What A Century / Lord Augustus, Hopper, Lord Windermere, Dumby
  • Sweet Day (reprise) / Lady Windermere
  • Oh, What A Century (reprise) Lord Augustus, Hopper, Lord Darlington, Dumby
  • May I Have the Pleasure / Hopper, Duchess of Berwick
  • Good Evening, Lady Windermere / Mrs. Erlynne, Lord Augustus, Ensemble
  • Let/s Say Goodbye / Mrs. Erlynne
  • I Offer You My Heart / Lord Darlington, Lady Windermere
  • I Knew That You Would Be My Love (reprise) / Lady Windermere
Act Two
  • I Feel So Terribly Alone / Lady Windermere
  • London At Night /The Gentlemen
  • Letter Song/Never Again Lord Darlington
  • Why Is It the Woman Who Pays? (reprise) / The Ladies
  • Clear Bright Morning /Lady Windermere
  • Remember Me/ Mrs. Erlynne
  • Something On A Tray /Duchess of Berwick
  • >
  • Faraway Land/Hopper
  • Let's Say Goodbye (reprise) / Mrs. Erlynne, Lord Augustus
  • Light is the Heart / Mrs. Erlynne and Ensemble
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