In early February 2012, actor/singer/writer/director Keith Merrill approached friend Mary Ellen Ashley, herself a singer/actress/producer with the idea of establishing what would eventually become a company devoted to the best of U.K. theater over the last century. (Ashley became Producing Director).
“I’ve been looking for a way to express what I want to share with New York for as long as I’ve been here. I just had this idea and no money.” Asking Merrill what he wants to share elicits the answer: truth rather than naturalism in theater and at a very high standard. What, I ask, is the difference between naturalism and truth in theater? “Naturalism is a vain attempt to create reality on stage. This is futile because theater by its nature is heightened reality and who wants to pay $100 to watch 2 hours of conversation that can be witnessed free at Starbuck’s? I’m aiming to present truthful performances but raised to the demand of larger than life texts.” A theory worthy of a graduate thesis; an ambition worthy of support.
“With classical music and dance there are real standards. You can’t be successful as a ballet dancer, opera singer, or classical musician without being excellent in the form. With acting, even if you’re not very good, you can work all the time. One of my prerequisites is consistent performance standards.”“I thought who better to name it after than Noel Coward.”
With the zeal, luck, and unfathomable speed of Judy and Mickey putting on a show in the barn, the two acquired an artistic council, began to gather sponsors, put up a web site, found a venue and mounted a production of Noel Coward’s Design for Living (book-held but rarely referred to) preceded by a musical amuse bouche with Steve Ross “we wanted a salon feeling” in 3 weeks! (Think about that). Ross offered class, style, wit, and innocent jollity. The theatrical ensemble conveyed Coward’s words and intention with bonhomie and finesse.
Noel & Company will mount one production a month, each preceded by an appropriate musical performance. Playwrights in consideration run a wide gamut from Terrance Rattigan, Harold Pinter, and Alan Bennett to Martin McDonough, John Osborne, more Coward and perhaps George Bernard Shaw. Eventually Merrill would like to set up table readings of new plays exposing authors who might not otherwise have access to audience and community here. Outreach to schools is also planned down the road, offering performances or workshops. Musicals are over the horizon. Long term plans include the establishment of an actual company creating fully staged productions Off Broadway every year.
This is ambitious theater presented by respectful, undaunted artisans- with a sense of style and occasion. It’s really affordable. ($20) and worthy of support.
Why The Vortex? I ask. “Unlike Coward’s other work, it deals with nasty, dark subject matter yet there’s laughter,” Merrill responds, “ It’s a riveting story involving Florence, a reluctantly ageing socialite with a penchant for extramarital affairs and Nicky and her cocaine addicted son.” Unable to find a theater sufficiently brave to produce such lurid subject matter, Coward raised the money himself. The small Everyman Theater in a London suburb premiered the production in 1924. It was a smash hit, not the least because of its controversial nature. Though other plays depicted drug addition, none had ventured among the sacrosanct lives of the rich. “The Vortex” moved to a West End Theater for an extended run.
Directed by Gabriel Barre (Almost, Maine, The Wild Party)
Cast includes KT Sullivan (Broadway’s The Threepenny Opera, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Matthew Cowles (Taming of the Shrew), Producing Director Mary Ellen Ashley (Yentl, Annie Get your Gun), Jerry Richardson (Last Exit to Brooklyn), Edward Hibbert (Jeffrey, The Drowsy Chaperone) and Artistic Director Keith Merrill (Camelot with Robert Goulet, Frost/Nixon). There will be a 6:40 pre-show performance by cabaret icon KT Sullivan, 7:00 pm curtain. With brilliant young violinist Filip Pogady.
The Gershwin Hotel
7 East 27th Street
Musical prelude in the lounge
(In conversation with the National Arts Club, Merrill hopes to change venue by May)
Tickets can be purchased at the door at 5 pm on April 16th, but it’s highly recommended to purchase them on-line via the website.
Keith Merrill, spent his childhood in England as an Air Force brat. Affinity came naturally and stuck. Attending the Walnut Hill School of the Arts in Massachusetts, Merrill encountered a theater teacher espousing Stanislavski as gospel and thought it “rubbish…At 18, I watched a Noel coward interview on acting and pretty much agreed with everything he said. It was a tremendous relief.” Merrill attended the prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama and The Royal Academy of Music in London. He’s performed on stage in the UK—including extensive work with the Stephen Sondheim founded Mercury Workshop as well as in the United States, directed, and authored a play, a television pilot and four musical reviews.
Mary Ellen Ashley has been onstage since the age of 4 when she played an Oakley sister in the original Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman. Roles on radio and television soap operas followed, succeeded by work on and Off Broadway, at regional theatres, with tours, and in nightclubs. Most recently, her gamut of portrayals has included that of a rap singing dinosaur in the recent production of Jurassic Park, The Musical. Producing credits include 11 Broadway and Off Broadway shows and an indie film.