Amanda Squittieri in Bitter Sweet
(© Cory Weaver)
Amanda Squittieri in Bitter Sweet
(© Cory Weaver)
There's an unexpected modernity coursing through Noël Coward's Bitter Sweet, currently playing at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts as part of Bard's SummerScape. Not only does the rarely staged operetta, written in 1929 but set primarily in the 19th Century, reveal the consequences of a young woman's decision to defy convention to marry a man outside of her social sphere, it also shows her taking life into her own hands, establishing a career for herself.

However, in attempting to underscore the piece's modern nature while downplaying its more dated aspect by transferring the show's action to the 20th Century, director Michael Gieleta undermines some of the work's inherent delicacy, a flaw that's further exacerbated by a heavyhandedness in some of the central performances.

Audiences first meet the show's heroine in 1969, as Lady Shayne (Siân Phillips), a grande dame of London society, as she hosts an engagement party for a young couple at which she learns that the bride-to-be is in love with the leader of the band playing at the event. This discovery leads Shayne to think back to the moment in 1920 when she eloped to Vienna with her voice teacher, Carl Linden (William Ferguson).

The life that Carl and Sarah (Sarah Miller), the future Lady Shayne, have together unfolds in a series of flashbacks. In Vienna, they eke a living out in a cabaret, where he's a pianist and she works as a taxi dancer. Their lives are complicated not only by financial difficulties, but also her depression over the unwanted advances of men in the club -- one captain (Joshua Jeremiah) in particular -- and by the presence of Manon (Amanda Squittieri), an old flame of Carl and a singer at the cabaret.

Events ultimately conspire to bring tragedy into the couple's world, but Coward, in a concession to less-than-modern sentimentality, provides a conclusion that is, appropriately enough, bittersweet.

The milieu provides Coward with ample opportunity to display his art as a songwriter, and the score contains three of his most enduring songs, including "I'll See You Again," which Miller and Ferguson deliver to spine tingling effect. In fact, their work during this number is so strong that it's difficult to understand why their performances elsewhere are often so devoid of passion and chemistry.

Among the other standards are "If Love Were All," which proves to be a showstopper thanks to Squittieri's mixture of powerhouse vocals and cunning showmanship, and "Zigeuner," in which Phillips, who brings a leonine regality to the show throughout, uses her rich, smoky alto to exquisite effect.

Equally impressive are several numbers for the cabaret performers, which include one in which four chorus boys extol their homosexuality. These sequences spring to life gloriously thanks to choreographer Christopher Caines' simultaneously witty and earthy dances. But as with the imbalance among the principals, other chorus sequences cast a pall, notably a drinking song which is simply unintelligible.

There are no such discrepancies in the physical production. Costume designer Gregory Gale provides some grandly exotic period gowns, and Adrian W. Jones' elegantly spare (and surprisingly flexible) scenic design is masterfully enhanced by lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, whose use of both color and stark shadows ably underscores the duality of the musical's title.