Sir Noël Peirce Coward (1899 –1973) was a British playwright/poet/songwriter/director/actor singer, known for wit, theatricality, and personal style; what Time Magazine called a combination of “pose and poise.”
Man/Pianist/Noël plays a few bars of “Someday I’ll Find You.”
Woman: Extraordinary how potent cheap music can be. Didn’t Noël say something to that effect?
Man: He said exactly that-and to exactly that piece of music…
Author Barry Day’s entertaining sketch of Noël Coward gives us a look at the man and artist with just a bit of historical context. The play eschews failures, long nights of the soul, and politics in favor of sociable success. What matters most is the people in this colorful life. Coward seems to have known anyone worth knowing.
Through anecdotes and exchanges, we hear a personal voice, not only the familiar snark and banter. Sentiment that touches us deeply in some of his songs was as prevalent in relationships as drollery. “Unlike his diaries, they (the letters) weren’t written with an eye to eventual publication.” Woven through the piece are 22 songs, many rather obscure.
Steve Ross, perhaps our most authentic interpreter of Coward, slips between Noël himself and narrative, piano/vocal, and letter reading. The veteran performer always delivers excellent patter with his unspoiled take on arrangement and lyrics. Here, however, acting outside of song, of which we’ve had a taste his last few shows, is as pivotal as music.
Ross acquits himself sensitively and well, exhibiting understanding of the man that affects overall tone. One might conjecture they share several traits. Instinctual song phrasing extends to dialogue.
As well as sharing narration, letter reading and song, KT Sullivan has a comedienne’s field day playing the likes of Coward’s mother, “Darling Mummy,” Gertrude Lawrence, Elaine Stritch (“Why Do the Wrong People Travel” is practically spat), Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich (oh the draping and the drama!), Beatrice Lillie, Mary Martin…each with her own distinctive voice and physical mannerisms.
“I expect you’ve heard this a million times before, but I absolutely adored your last play… ” begins a speech from Coward’s Social Grace depicting one of those intrusive, oblivious people who won’t let a celebrity alone. The character goes on and on and ON about her own life, barely drawing a breath. Sullivan is pitch perfect.
In an excerpt from Private Lives, still besotted exes Elyot and Amanda, ostensibly stand on neighboring balconies, neither looking at the other during awkward conversation. Not until she asks about the Taj Mahal (he’s been touring the world) does Ross turn to Sullivan. “Beautiful, like a dream,” Elyot recalls. The theater holds its breath. He then tells her he loves her. We believe it.
I’ll Remember her/How incredibly naïve she was,/I couldn’t quite believe she was sincere./So alert, so impertinent/ and yet so sweet…Ross sings, heart in his voice. (“I’ll Remember Her”)
Vocals are mostly beautifully restrained, some as light as milkweed pods. Sullivan’s “Mad About the Boy” emerges as enamored as it is somewhat embarrassed. (Apparently the song had an unused lyric meant for a man:People I employ/Call me Myrna Loy/I rise above it, but I love it…)
A lilting duet of “I Wanted to Show You Paris” conjures watercolor images. Both players exude warmth. Ross’s sprightly “London is a Little Bit of Alright” and a duet of “Saturday Night at The Rose and Crown” are buoyant vaudeville/music hall. “London Pride” stirs; “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart” touches. A captivating, mostly a capella “The Party’s Over Now” lets us gently take leave.
Director Charlotte Moore offers variety and naturalness in staging. Both sides of the audience are addressed fluidly. Pace is comfortable, interaction apt, letter reading nicely achieved. (This could be a bit slower.) My caveat is Coward’s unnecessary English accent which comes and goes. (Michael Reubens, Dialect Coach)
James Morgan (set) skillfully makes the small theater period stylish.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Love, Noël – The Songs and Letters of Noël Coward
Steve Ross and KT Sullivan
Devised and Written by Barry Day
Directed by Charlotte Moore
Through August 25, 2019
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street