Jason Henderson: “Getting to Noël You”
One of the deprivations of growing up in New Hampshire was that I was never exposed to more sophisticated entertainments in general, and Sir Noël Coward in particular. It was not until I got to Columbia University here in NY that I discovered the wit, the panache, the lyrics and melodies, plays, and stories of the Master. I was a devoted fan from the first blush of my flirtation with his work. I have been to countless revues and tributes and shows dedicated to his songs, from the best (Oh, Coward!) to the worst (which were many and, for the purposes of this review, nameless), No matter good or bad, they consist of his songs interspersed with biographical or critical bits of information about his life, and his plays, music, and movies.
When I discovered Coward, he was of “a certain age” and that is how most people view him, but I have often wondered what it must have been like to witness him honing his craft as a young man on the nightclub and cabaret stages of his youth. Jason Henderson’s new show, Getting to Noël You (which premiered recently at Don’t Tell Mama), gives a glimpse into what that might have been like.
Henderson is a talented, assured, immensely likable performer able to do the material justice as both a singer and an actor. His show is not a traditional tribute but rather a one-act, one-man musical comedy scored with a variety of Coward classics and rarities, each perfectly delivered and thoughtfully reimagined in this context. After discovering the icon, he quickly realized that there was a Coward song for every occasion in his life and that a soundtrack to accompany them had taken up residency in his head. While telling of the trials and tribulations of his work history, first in his native New Zealand and then here, he illustrates each situation with an appropriate tune.
Henderson wittily presents a heightened version of himself—a hapless, hilariously fussy, frustrated, and furious office worker, bow-tied and tightly wound, longing for a more glamorous and interesting life, while suffering the mundane fools and society around him. The writing, the delivery, and the character work are so good, in fact, that I would have gladly sat through an hour of spoken word without a song to be heard. But fortunately for the audience there are those brilliant songs to enhance his conceit at every turn. Henderson’s voice is supple, clear, and smooth, strong where needed, and a change from the crisp, dry, patrician sound of Sir Noël. It places the material in a much more conversational realm, and it is all the better for it. The upper crust observations and tales juxtaposed against the day-to-day, workplace setting add an even more humorous spin to the whole evening.
Even though the stories early in the show are set in New Zealand, their frustrating, irritating ordinariness transcends borders—rarely has office life been so consistently funny. The classic “Someday I’ll Find You” opens the show, transforming from a yearning for lost love into a quest that might be for happiness, success, a new career, or for Coward himself, or more likely, for all of the above. There’s immediate recognition that we and the material are in good hands for the next hour. He seems born to sing the material right from the start. With “Come to Me” (a rarity from Sail Away) as a glorious second number, the show has already taken flight. I will avoid spoilers where possible because of the wonderful settings and set-ups that abound in the show, so suffice it to say that turning “The End of the News” into an overheard co-worker’s phone call is simply sensational.
The saving grace of music in his workaday world is celebrated in “Play Orchestra Play” which leads to an extended and increasingly angry diatribe against copy machines and technology as a whole, followed by a wistful “World Weary.” It is worth the price of admission just to hear what Henderson does with the phrase, “…just one cow with a wistful moo.” His initially reluctant attendance at an office party is recounted in “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party” done as well as I have ever heard it, sung and acted to the proverbial tee—every setup, every punchline, every syllable lands perfectly. It is entirely possible that it has already become my favorite version of the song, replacing the usual frantic delivery with gleeful incredulity. Office romance and longing inspires a medley ending with “If Love Were All” in which his brave interpretation strips away the usual grandeur of the piece, replacing it with an almost painfully personal acceptance of fear and failure, making the lines tiny admissions rather than anthemic declarations. It is just lovely.
What follows is a stirring hymn to his escape from New Zealand and his journey to America comprised of “I Travel Alone” and “Sail Away.” I love that Henderson is as interested in the heart and passion of Coward as he is in the acerbic wit because both sides were certainly there. That humor returns immediately in “Why Do the Wrong People Travel,” proving once again that he is one of Coward’s top interpreters, wringing every laugh to be wrung out of the song. He celebrates his arrival in New York to seek fame and fortune with “I Like America” which I first heard on the LP, Noel Coward in New York, back in my Columbia days and have not heard since. It is a most welcome revisit.
As the show approached its climax, the lines between the character who has delighted us on stage and the real Jason Henderson begin to blur when he shares tales of his studies at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, his unexpected desire to be an actor, and the temporary thwarting of those plans by a global pandemic and a return to New Zealand just as he was planning to take up residence in the world of cabaret and theatre. It is an altogether winning transformation capped with a moving “I’ll See You Again” set against a story about COVID and JFK Airport. Announcing that he is, at least for now, back for another go in NYC having finally just graduated from the Neighborhood Playhouse, he leaves us with a bit of Cowardly philosophy and a promise, singing a never more relevant “Living in a Changing World” followed by a winning “Comes the Wild, Wild Weather” (from Waiting in the Wings).
Christopher Denny’s sensitive, dynamic, witty, thoughtful, empathetic accompaniment and arrangements are a vital part of the show’s success as is Barry Kleinbort’s smart and insightful direction, which brings just the right balance of theatricality and cabaret intimacy to the proceedings. The sound and lights by Gian DiCostanzo add their own level of excellence to the show. But the star of the night is Jason Henderson. The show is a low-key triumph and marks the ascendance of a new and hopefully lasting star in the cabaret firmament.
Presented at Don’t Tell Mama, 346 W. 46th St., NYC, July 6, 12, Sept. 15, Oct. 26, &Dec. 4, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”