Jason Henderson

June 25, 2018 | By | Add a Comment

Presenting an entire program of Noël Coward numbers would, I imagine, give many an American cabaret singer pause. Whose songs are more steadfastly British—not only in lyrical content but also in sound and style? (OK, Gilbert and Sullivan’s, but who else’s?) Also, Coward is one of the rare musical talents of his generation and genre who’s known as much for performing songs as for singing them. Yes, it’s possible to succeed with his material without mimicking his singing style, but it’s difficult for most who attempt Coward to avoid sounding ridiculous while carrying on about mad dogs and Englishmen when they hail from Nashville or Santa Barbara or Park Slope.

If American performers are wary of offering full servings of Cowardy custard, how about New Zealanders? Young Jason Henderson suggests that the Kiwis may well have an upper hand. He is on an extended stay in New York as part of an international artistic adventure and is currently making his New York cabaret debut in a program called Getting to Noël You: The Coward That Changed My Life, at Don’t Tell Mama. The show (directed by Barry Kleinbort) is, by and large, a successful outing. Henderson’s stage persona is that of a buttoned-down yet affable fellow who faces life with a fluctuating mixture of throttled anxiety and aplomb that seems a lot like the famous British pluckiness. The show is built around his working life in office settings. He tells us that there’s a Coward song for every occasion, then he demonstrates this with example after example. For instance, he uses “That Is the End of the News” to comment on a gossipy office mate. Describing how he relies on headphones spouting Beethoven and Gershwin to block out that offending chatterer and other such nuisances, he gives us “Play, Orchestra, Play.” Weekends provide another escape from workweek woes, as he illustrates with “I Went to a Marvelous Party.” Part of the humor in his performances comes from the discrepancy between Coward’s extravagant way of life and Henderson’s own, considerably more pedestrian circumstances. It’s hard to believe that between temp jobs, Henderson has been to many weekend soirees attended by fox-trotting Grand Dukes, but it’s fun to imagine him there.

The singer has his own dry wit and a way with a punch line. His comic timing is sharp, and his script has some truly funny lines. He also improvises well. At the show I saw, someone in the audience piped up to say that there was a way for him to stay in the States despite his soon-to-expire visa. That’s something he’d be happy to hear more about, he retorted briskly, but the need to return to New Zealand is what’s written in his current script, so not right now, please!

He is, wisely (and impressively), restrained with his gestures while singing. He seems perfectly comfortable standing with his arms still at his side for long periods of time and letting the audience concentrate on his voice and face. The voice is a clear and resonant baritone, which he puts to best use on the comic numbers. I (and, based on their response, the rest of the audience) especially liked his “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” The familiar Coward brand of speak-singing comes naturally to him, though he doesn’t go overboard with it.

The ballads are a different story. Henderson tends to go too loud with some of the more delicate ones, overwhelming us. A pairing of “Something Very Strange” and “If Love Were All” is but one example. I hope that he and his musical director and pianist, the talented Christopher Denny, will work to keep this tendency in check. Also, regarding “If Love Were All,” it might be a title for Henderson to avoid altogether for the time being. It’s one of those numbers—along with “September Song,” “My Way,” and “Here’s to Life”— that have a considerably greater ring of authority when sung by performers who are getting on a bit.

Getting to Noël You: The Coward That Changed My Life
Don’t Tell Mama  –  May 1, June 20, July 2

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. His features and reviews have appeared in such publications as American Theatre and Back Stage and on BistroAwards.com. As a dramaturg he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. His stage adaptation of Henry James's novel The Tragic Muse was part of the Gilded Stage Festival at the Metropolitan Playhouse in January 2014.

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