THEATER | At the Guthrie, generations U and V bask in the light of “Coward’s Women”

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“If you’re going to use a cigarette as a prop, at least smoke the damn thing.”
-Noel Coward

Had Noel Coward been born a Minnesotan, he would probably have high-tailed it to the coast so quickly it would have made F. Scott Fitzgerald look indecisive and made Bob Dylan seem like a slowpoke—and yet, we’re celebrating a season of Coward on local stages, with Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter on the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage, Blithe Spirit at the Jungle, and now Coward’s Women produced by the Producing House (unfortunately, the band is not the Band) in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio.

coward’s women, presented through april 3 at the guthrie theater. for tickets ($22-$30) and information, see guthrietheater.org

It’s a droll, polished little affair: a dozen and a half Coward songs performed by singers Erin Schwab and Maud Hixson with a tastefully swinging band led by pianist (and occasional spoken-word performer in the William Shatner mold) Rick Carlson. We’re spared the forced drama Ella subjected us to last summer; between songs, the performers merely recite pithy excerpts from Coward’s diaries and letters.

The Wednesday night audience was heavily populated by Baby Boomers and their forebears, and from my seat near the back of the platform on which the performers stood, I could see many delighted grins. The singers fed on the enthusiasm as they precisely enunciated Coward’s laconic verses; Schwab in particular roped ’em in, visibly enjoying herself. (“She’d be fun to have at a party,” said my aunt.) With the exception of a couple of glitches involving Schwab’s microphone, Dan Nycklemoe’s sound design and Karin Olson’s lighting were sleekly effective as director Michael Todaro ferried us safely and dryly across the hourlong revue.

Coward’s Women is not a particularly ambitious production, which is both its virtue and its vice. Classic songs like “Let’s Do It” (a Cole Porter song with new lyrics by Coward) and “Someday I’ll Find You” are performed with competence and charm, but with nothing near the freshness or emotional impact of the Coward music performed by the Kneehigh troupe in Brief Encounter. Hixson does indeed us a cigarette as a prop, and flings it away with dramatic flourish—but no, she never lights it, so what’s the point? It’s like carrying a high-heeled shoe in your purse just to throw at people.

It’s a perfectly fine show, but I’m guessing Coward himself might have been a little bored. He never actually spoke the words I attributed to him above, but here’s something he did say: “She stopped the show…but then, the show wasn’t traveling very fast.”