Noël Coward's first complete operetta Bitter Sweet (1929) was a huge success in London and on Broadway. He followed it with Conversation Piece in 1934, which failed to capture the imagination of audiences on either side of the Atlantic. In 1951, producer Goddard Lieberson made a recording including the music and most of the dialogue, with spoken summaries connecting the scenes. The cast includes Coward, Lily Pons, and Richard Burton as the leads. Coward's slight plot involves a refugee from the French Revolution attempting to make his fortune by marrying his "ward" off to a wealthy British lord. Coward's dialogue, sometimes witty, sometimes starchy, is not enlivened by the performances of most of the actors, and the enterprise sounds more like the studio reading that it was than like a record of a lively theatrical performance. Lily Pons, one of the first true crossover artists, with a career both at the Metropolitan Opera and in the movies, is an exception; she brings sparkle and wit both to her spoken lines and songs. Cathleen Nesbitt is also wonderfully effective -- alternately catty and charming -- as the aristocratic Lady Julia Charteris. Coward is unconvincing as the expatriate, and doesn't make a strong case for his work. Enough of the dialogue is in French that non-French speaker may have difficulty following the details of the plot. Coward's music for the show was not among his most memorable, but it's consistently pleasant and moves the plot nicely along. Ultimately, in spite of its sentimentality and unevenness, the show is surprisingly sweet and touching. The sound is clean and present, thanks to the restoration and remastering of Alan Bunting. As a document of a minor play by a major talent, the production is valuable, and Anglophiles will be pleased to have a record of a work they aren't likely to encounter in a modern theater.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
|Conversation Piece, musical|
feat: Richard Burton
feat: Cathleen Nesbitt