It was standing room only in the Bruno Walter Auditorium Monday night when the inimitable Steve Ross presented his witty and well researched Noel Coward: Off the Record. Leave it to Ross not only to disinter many of the master’s songs never recorded, cut from shows, or left in trunks, but also to provide entertaining back-stories. Aided and abetted by splendid sopranos Jeannie Lehman and Lisa Riegel, Ross regaled us with rarities commercial, amusing, and sweet showing Coward’s remarkable facility to adapt to morés as well as eventually to establish his own.
The first time Noel Coward saw his name printed on sheet music was 1919’s The Baseball Rag (music by Doris Duke). Later, he admitted terms like “ripping” and “tally ho” kept it from being quite as all American as he’d intended. Ross followed this curious opening salvo with several numbers from the West End Revue London Calling. Coward described the first, Sentiment, as “having fallen like wet pennies in the mud.” Ross delivered it with every bit of panache one imagines the author evidenced on stage in his top hat and tails. Jeanne Lehman’s rendition of Spanish Grandee was tango pastiche. Had her tongue not been firmly in her cheek, one suspects she might’ve held a rose between her teeth. For When We Were Girls Together, Lehman was joined, ready to do and dare, by Lisa Riegel (photo, left, with Ross), their voices beautifully melding in music hall hey nonny nonnies.
There were waltzes like the corny, operetta-like Heavenly Moment written for the unproduced Samolan Operette (in frothy duet with Riegel), musical repartee exemplified by Let’s Be Sincere, a duet with Lehman punctuated by her eyebrow-raised correction of his grammar, and the thoughtful We’re Living in a Changing World, a riposte to The Last Time I Saw Paris which was dedicated to Coward, sung by Ross with resigned sobriety.
The only well known song on the program was the wonderfully wicked What’s Going to Happen to the Children? Ross’s perfect insouciant distain brought every barbed lyric home. Thoughtful programming countered this offering with It Doesn’t Matter How Old You Are performed by Lehman (with Ross at right) with just the right wink in her voice.
Steve Ross is in fine form even playing fairly unfamiliar Coward. Informative patter is fun, interjected comments are dry and apt. Effortlessly classy, he embodies the spirit in which Coward wrote. His vivacious artistry appears to be at home.
Lisa Riegel has a high, soprano voice with a very pretty, delicate vibrato. She sounds classically trained. Jeanne Lehman’s mid soprano is strong and ably, character-oriented. She’s a nuanced comedienne. The two perform well together.
“Noel Coward was born into, as he described it, a generation that took light music seriously… We’ve enjoyed prospecting and we hope that we’ve uncovered at least a few nuggets of gold for you to enjoy and remember.”
The evening closed with a warm, sing-along of I’ll See You Again.
Noel Coward: Off the Record
Presented by Steve Ross
With Jeanne Lehman and Lisa Riegel
Bruno Walter Auditorium
Program Director: Cheryl Raymond
In conjunction with the exhibition Star Quality: The World of Noel Coward at
The New York Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center through August 18