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
“I’ve gotten to an age when people say to me you’ve had an interesting life. Had?!”
Dillie Keane and songwriting partner of 35 years, Adele Anderson (they both write lyrics, Keane writes the music) might be love children of Dorothy Fields and Noel Coward. As with Fields’ work, cleverness never obscures honesty or empathy. Like that of Coward, droll lyrics, even those with hat-and-cane music hall tunes, are basted by sophistication. Poignancy inevitably arrives with charm.
With this very personal show, Keane and Anderson tell stories of women/people of a certain vintage enmeshed in the vicissitudes of love and facsimiles thereof. “You know, my life is touring, chutney and gardening and it’s not going to make a great read really. So anybody wanting to look at my life will have to just look at the songs.” Hello Dillie! is scrappy, witty, and warm.
That the artist is also a respected theater actress is immediately apparent. Keane inhabits every song. Some are character turns, other mini one-acts. We open with “My Average Morning” in which, amid twittering birds, the singer faces another day as the butt of God’s great joke, literally falling back across the piano top with a moan.
Deeply hungover, she hears an unfamiliar snore, finds she’s not alone in bed and that the window isn’t where it ought to be. As if that weren’t sufficiently disconcerting, …Those certainly aren’t my handcuffs,/And I never wear red lace… not to mention the horse! An hysterical story recollected rather than related, with blithe melody and spot-on comic timing.
Three visits to clairvoyants are intermittently enacted, some fateful, others guff. What, after all, is one to do with time off touring in places like Canberra, Australia? The actress becomes a Hungarian tarot card reader, a Brighton seer, after whose session she thought, based on the sybil’s logic, her grandmother may have been Fats Waller, and a Blackpool psychic who described the view out her back window long before Keane found herself at the house.
“Single Again” and “Back With You” were written years apart, yet when the second was completed Keane and her collaborator felt they’d “finished the story.” The idea of being single at her age – embarrassed, awkward, remembering two toothbrushes, two robes, “frightened” the performer so much, she stayed in a bad relationship too long. While lyrics couldn’t be more genuine or distressed, piano accompaniment is jaunty; juxtaposition works wonderfully. The second number is delivered with a frustrated growl. Keane paces and rants, a self admitted fool, a slave to pheromones. I’m deranged/ To kid myself that you had really changed…Sound familiar?
Touching songs include such as “Out of Practice,” a conversation with her reticent self about risking love again, “Little Shadows” experienced from inside a long term relationship colored by … hidden grief;/Silent as a withered leaf;/… There are things, she suggests, one must never discuss, yet life goes on. And the tender, poetic “Love Late” which sounds for all the world like a traditional folk song handed down from generation to generation.
Keane packs more measured feeling into a phrase than that with which many vocalists imbue a whole song. She can be as delicate as snow in a snowglobe, broad-vaudeville funny, or incisively arch. Twice she ably replaces her excellent piano accompanist, Michael Roulston, whose light touch, intuitive timing, and theatrical flair buoy the show.
The well written piece has a vertebrae which serves. Stories bridge and introduce, each specific, none manufactured to fit. Keane creates the kind of genial intimacy one wants to take home to dinner. Direction by Simon Green, himself a first rate performer, is expressive and perfectly tailored.
“Pam,” about a woman confronting a husband’s mistress, communicates, in the sweetest, most polite tones, that though not ordinarily aggressive, she feels it only fair to warn the interloper her kneecaps are at present in danger. Should she continue pursuit, in fact, far worse consequences would ensue. Stop/start phrasing leaves ample time for the potential victim’s squirming. We can see Keane observe her. Most striking is that the song’s authors instill its lyrics with the wife’s experience and insight rather than merely describing revenge.
“Much More Married” is the episodic history of a burgeoning relationship whose every date reveals an aspect of circumstances not as first portrayed. The prologue is a gem. Keane got out of this one in time. “One More Campaign,” erupts as a drinking song, equating love with war. There are numbers describing literal and figurative illusions proffered by older romantics. “Everything,” as Nora Ephron famously said, “is copy.”
Except for a few more obviously concocted numbers, the show is sheer delight. An hour and a half with the multi-talented Dillie Keane will leave you feeling like uncorked bubbly. Go. Take friends. You’ll thank me.
Keane is best known to American audiences as one-third of Fascinating Aida with irreverent vocalists Adele Anderson and Liza Pullman. Her two previous solo shows, alas, never reached these shores.
Photos of Dillie Keane and Michael Roulston by Carol Rosegg.
With songs by Dillie Keane and Adele Anderson
Michael Roulston at the piano
Directed by Simon Green
59E59 Street Theatres
59 East 59th Street
Through July 3. 2016