5:56 PM CDT, March 17, 2013
Some years ago, Davenport's cabaret hosted evening-length shows devoted to the work of distinctive songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, Dusty Springfield and Laura Nyro.
These productions, with musical direction by the great Dan Stetzel, were highlights of the cabaret season, an ensemble of performers taking on music that richly deserved re-examination.
The sooner Stetzel offers another of these evenings the better. But until then, singer Suzanne Petri's "A Little Touch of Coward in the Night" will remind audiences of the rewards of seeing a small troupe of performers addressing a single composer's work.
Much more than just a recitation of tunes, this homage to playwright-songwriter Noel Coward – which Petri performed Friday night at Davenport's – amounted to a substantial musical revue. Petri stood at its center, but she shared the stage with superb singer John Eskola, veteran pianist-vocalist Bob Moreen and formidable actor-narrator Robert Breuler (Petri's husband and the evening's director). Together, these artists interchangeably performed solos, duets and trios (only Breuler did not sing), while the evening's script sketched the arc of Coward's career.
Though many cabaret singers dabble in music of Coward, Petri and company dug deeply into its meaning and context. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine many American artists who could get closer to the British tone and style of this work than Petri and friends.
Consider "Mrs. Worthington," Coward's withering indictment of ungifted young performers and their oft-delusional parents. After a bit of spoken background on Coward's youthful introduction to the stage, Petri launched the tune gently. At first, she delivered Coward's put-downs with delicacy, as if hoping to spare the feelings of the clueless stage mother yearning to foist her daughter onto the public.
As Coward's insults acquired additional venom, however, Petri inexorably raised the tone of her rage, viscerally expressing Coward's contempt for the amateur performers in our midst. How satisfying.
"Mad Dogs and Englishmen" turns up wherever Coward is performed, but rarely with the freshness and attitude that Petri, Eskola and Moreen offered. Every word mattered; no phrase was tossed off. In effect, the trio shook the dust off the tune, holding it up for re-interpretation.
Coward may be widely admired for his wit, but he also showed a great deal of heart in love songs, an overlooked point that this show underscored. Eskola's supple tenor was well applied in "Matelot," Petri meanwhile bringing considerable warmth to duet passages. And for all the gutsiness of Petri's work elsewhere in the show, she showed ample vulnerability in "If Love Were All."
Breuler's made more of his role as narrator than most, turning some of his soliloquies into brief character studies. His turns of phrase and physical gestures succinctly portrayed Coward's early 20th century world, no small feat.
But Petri, by nature, emerged as the evening's focal point. The intensity of her performance and the degree of attention she gave every syllable pointed to a cabaret artist of unusual rigor. She may hit a stray note now and then, and she rarely pursues lovely vocal tones (except in the occasional ballad).
Yet for listeners who wish to get underneath the skin of a song – to its center – Petri serves as fearless tour guide. And nowhere more than in the work of Coward.
"A Little Touch of Coward in the Night" plays at 8 p.m. Friday at Davenport's, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $20 plus two-drink minimum; 773-278-1830 or davenportspianobar.com.
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