The Bitter and The Sweet By JOHN SIMON
It is good that Noel Coward spelled what is ordinarily one word as two in the title of his 1929 operetta, Bitter Sweet. That way, for a production at the Bard College SummerScape, I feel more justified in separating the few sweet things from the more numerous bitter ones. It is a shame that, at Bard, such a worthy but rarely seen show should have so many of the latter.
It has been updated to 1969 and 1920, and starts with a young woman, Dolly, about to be lovelessly married. The widowed Lady Shayne, at a party of whose the story begins, recalls for Dolly, drawn to the pianist Vincent, her own similar tale half a century earlier with the Austrian composer-pianist, Carl Linden, her music teacher.
Sarah Millick, as she was then, eloped to a marriage and precarious existence with Carl, and we found them in a Viennese cabaret, where he plays and she sings. A boorish army captain wants to possess her, and Carl, defending her, must fight a sabre duel with the spurned officer, only to be killed by him. Sarah—Sari in Mitteleuropa—becomes a star and, though still in love with her dead husband, agrees, back in London, to a marriage of convenience to Lord Shayne, who adores her, and at whose party she performs one of her late husband’s songs. Taking a hint from the story, Dolly elopes with Vincent.
There is more to it, but why elaborate, especially since by the time you read this, the show’s brief run will have ended. It has some fine Coward songs, about which more presently. It also has a somewhat threadbare story, but enough to make its nearly three-hour duration (despite serious cutting even of songs), easily endurable.
The production had rather skimpy scenery by Adrian W. Jones, but convincing costumes by Gregory Gale, and expert lighting by Christopher Akerlind. Christopher Caines’s choreography was perfectly adequate, as would have been the staging by the adapter-director Michael Gieleta, if only he had spared the scissors and managed to come up with a better cast.
Two members, to be sure, were above reproach. The veteran Welsh actress Sian Phillips was a comely and arresting Lady Shayne. Even if only a tolerable singer, she is a compelling actress and a terrific stage presence, and need only stand there, mute and motionless, tol be a perfect magnet for audience attention. Even if her music had to be transposed lower, she acquitted herself gallantly in song as well.
Equally winning was Amanda Squittieri, both histrionically and vocally, and looking delightful to boot, as the hard-nosed cabaret chanteuse Manon, friend to Sari. But the rest of the cast, some of them Bard students, was mostly mais non. We may perhaps exempt the four young fellows who, playing waiters, handled their big number, “Green Carnations” (a signal of homosexuality), with acumen enough.
But what were we to make of the two leads? As Carl, William Ferguson was a passable singer, but a poor and charmless actor lacking any virile appeal; as Sarah, Sarah Miller offered effortful acting, an unpleasant voice, and scant looks further hampered by an unbecoming wig. The pair did not generate enough chemistry for a freshman science class. I cannot refrain from mentioning that nobody I have heard sings a Coward song as well as its author.
Equally unfortunate was the casting of Dolly with Marianne Rendon, a large and ungainly girl, and her pianist, Vincent, with the small, Beatles-wigged, personality-bereft Joel Johnstone, making them a comical pair. To the rest of the cast, struggling also with their accents, let us grant merciful anonymity.
But there were the songs, well supported by the orchestra under James Bagwell. Especially notable are “If Love Were All,” “I’ll See You Again” and “Zigeuner,” although “Tokay” and a couple of others (some cut} are pleasant as well. The first-named contains the lines “The most I’ve had is just/ A talent to amuse,” the four last words becoming Coward’s own motto, appearing also as epitaph on his tombstone.
A modest enough claim, but when you consider that the talent extended amply to a dozen different disciplines, and that the amusement included pathos as well as humor, that claim is nothing to sneeze at. I can only hope against hope that we shall yet be accorded, in the foreseeable future, a worthier mounting of Bitter Sweet.
Whatever one thinks of Bitter Sweet, though, SummerScape is a wonderful summer festival thought up by Leon Botstein, president of Bard and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra. Each year, the festival has a major composer and his era for focus; in the past, the likes of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Berg. This year it is Jan Sibelius, along with his age in Finland and Scandinavia.
It usually means an opera; this year, since Sibelius composed none, The Love of Danae, a wonderful but neglected work by his exact contemporary, Richard Strauss. There are, however, any number of orchestral and chamber music concerts, and vocal and instrumental recitals, of works by the great Finn and his contemporaries. Also theater of the period, in this case The Wild Duck by Ibsen, as well as appropriate films, lectures and symposiums. The quality is generally high, and the whole enterprise deserves praise and support. Annandale-on-Hudson and Bard are within easy enough access from anywhere in Westchester. Go!
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.