Life is for Living – Conversations with Noel Coward
Simon Green and David Shrubsole made their New York debut at 59E59 Theaters in 2008 with the Noel Coward show A Changing World. I attended-twice. Here, I thought, were performers who “got” Coward, both his tender sentimentality and acerbic wit. Green’s British accent, actor’s phrasing, perception, and intelligence buoyed an unforced theatrical tenor. Shrubsole’s role as creative Sancho Panza was a perfect fit.
Eight years later, with one appearance here between, the respectively accomplished duo come together again to give us a more personal glimpse of Sir Noel. Copious research is evident in selections of Coward’s letters (to and from), poems, diaries, and songs. The latter also mines material from Cole Porter, Ivor Novello, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin which the program conjectures were inspired by Coward. Jeremy Nicholas’s “Place Settings” could actually be mistaken for Coward, influencing Porter and Novello is highly plausible. I wonder at the inclusion of Gershwin and Berlin on this list, however.
Additionally, with mixed results, the show includes Shrubsole’s setting of verse by Coward, Porter and Maya Angelou. A sophisticated The Little Old Bar at the Ritz (Porter’s verse) arrives smart and melodic, but Angelou’s Human Family seems to be in the wrong show, and Coward’s Honeymoon 1905 drones on almost monotone. Too many settings sound alike.
Readings and monologues are often quite wonderful. I Knew You Without Enchantment is a virtuoso turn. Green can toss off phrases like “My darlings” as if they were second nature. Correspondence between Podge and Stodge (Coward and his mother, Violet) rings wry and warmly true.
The show features eclectic songs such as : “Something Very Strange is Happening to Me,” “Don’t Turn Away From Love” (with an effective soupcon more emphasis on don’t) and “I Saw No Shadow” (Shrubsole paints melodic pictures) as well as the iconic “I Travel Alone”, “London Pride”, and “Sail Away.” These last three are melancholy, dignified, wistful, resigned, while a rendition of “I Went To a Marvelous Party” is unexpectedly rushed, chopped by interjected text, and unfunny. This is not the Green I remember.
At home both on a big stage and in an intimate cabaret environment, Green looks slowly around the room drawing us in. The artist, like Coward, is elegant. There are genuinely touching and lighthearted moments. Shrubsole’s accompaniment and background music (to spoken verse) is respectively sensitive and spot on. In this show, however, he’s is more successful with other composer’s melodies.
I admire these artists, but am disappointed with their latest effort.
Photos by Heidi Bohenkamp
Life is for Living-Conversations with Noel Coward
Musical Director/Pianist/composing contributor-David Shrubsole
Research- Jason Morell
59 East 59th Street
Through January 1, 2016