The first act begins on the stage of London’s Majestic Theatre with the finale of the musical, The Coconut Girl, on the eve of George V’s coronation. The cast assembles to meet the royal visitor, Grand Duke Charles, Prince Regent of Carpathia, a longtime widower. American chorus girl Mary Morgan trips when she is about to curtsy and falls into the arms of the Regent. As a result, Mary is invited to a late night supper in the Regent’s private apartment at the Carpathian Embassy. Their tête-à-tête is interrupted repeatedly by the Queen Mother, phone calls about political unrest at home, and a protest from his teenage son King Nikki who has sided with the rebels.
When the naïve and innocent Mary drinks vodka for the first time on an empty stomach, she promptly falls asleep and wakes up in her evening dress in the embassy the next morning. While the exasperated Regent wants to get rid of her as quickly as possible, the Queen Mother takes a shine to her and when her lady-in-waiting becomes ill, she appoints her as the replacement and takes her off to the Coronation at Westminster Abbey. After a series of other improbable twists of fate, Mary finds herself the King’s companion for the Foreign Office Ball. Ultimately, Mary humanizes Grand Duke Charles and paves the way for his reconciliation with his son.
In an attempt to write an up-to-date musical set in Edwardian times, Kurnitz and Coward used as their model My Fair Lady to the extent that every character and number in The Girl Who Came to Supper has its counterpart in the Lerner and Loewe masterwork. While King Nikki’s experiences with the Cockneys of St. Martin’s Lane has the best musical numbers of the show, the sequence does not grow out of the material as does Alfred Doolittle’s cavorting with his cronies before his wedding. Mary’s development from a hick from Milwaukee to a sophisticated woman of the world is not as well defined as Eliza Doolittle’s advancement from flower girl to lady and therefore not as much sympathy is build up for her. Grand Duke Charles’s songs are talked to music just like Henry Higgins’ but Charles is not as complex and interesting a character as the misogynistic English professor. The parallels to My Fair Lady work against The Girl Who Came to Supper and make it seem a more pallid imitation.
Director Thomas Sabella-Mills has wisely cast the revival with excellent leads and the uncredited costumes are a visual delight. Coward’s lilting and witty score is brilliantly played by music director and vocal arranger David H. Bishop and augmented in the romantic scenes by offstage violinist Billy Joe Kiessling and Ryan McCurdy on the mandolin, who also appear in the ensemble. The musical contains two remarkable song sequences, the four London musical hall ballads led by the Cockney fish and chips peddler Ada Cockle, and Mary’s description of her show, The Coconut Girl, in which she sings six songs from her show playing all of the parts. While Joan Barber (who also plays the Queen Mother) isn’t up to the level of music hall star Tessie O’Shea who won a Tony Award for this 11 minute sequence in the original production, the songs are still toe-tappers. However, Jessica Wagner as Mary demonstrates her enormous range in this mini-musical.
Though more solid and pragmatic than waiflike or ethereal, the elegant and poised Wagner as the heroine Mary Morgan is a take-charge sort of actress and practically carries the show on her shoulders. Jonathan Raviv, who has a better singing voice than either Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins or Jose Ferrer on the original cast album of The Girl Who Came to Supper, makes a charming though elitist and reserved royal as Charles. Barber is delightfully dotty as the Queen Mother. Brian Knoebel is endearing as King Nicholas, held at great distance by his disappointed father, while Mitch Greenberg, as Northbrook, the British diplomat assigned to the Regent by the British Foreign Office (the Colonel Pickering role) makes this stiff upper lip Englishman all his own. With a perpetual frown, Richard Rowan’s Colonel Hoffman is a man of supreme loyalty to the Regent. The direction and choreography by Sabella-Mills for this Edwardian drawing room comedy is both polished and assured.
Only revived once since the original production, The Girl Who Came to Supper is a treat for Noel Coward fans with its score of both familiar and unfamiliar songs. While the show has its structural problems and has been too much influenced by previous landmarks of the American musical theater, it is a sophisticated show with songs that vary from operetta, to music hall and jazz numbers. Some of the best songs of late Coward is to be heard in this show in the context for which they were written.
The Girl Who Came to Supper (through November 16, 2014)
The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-560-2186 or visit http://www.musicalstonight.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission