How, in future, will we immortalize the famous when all they leave behind is emails, tweets, or texts? It’s a question raised halfway through Love, Noël, a show that uses Noël Coward’s letters to weave together some of his hit songs in a loosely biographical homage. The prolific twentieth century playwright, songwriter, actor, director and, let’s face it, inveterate snob, left behind volumes of entertaining, sometimes acerbic missives that have proved fertile ground for aphorisms and nuggets of period detail. For Coward’s fan base, the show is a luscious hagiographic nostalgia trip. Those new to Coward may find this a curious period piece, a gentle cabaret preserved safely in aspic.
Steve Ross, dressed in a dinner jacket and bowtie, tinkles his way through the Coward cannon at the baby grand. With suave ease, he embodies Noël from his childhood stage debut through his rise to fame and acquired aristocratic cachet. Opening with some of Coward’s softer numbers, such as “If Love Were All”, the evening gets off to a slightly hesitant start. The other half of the duo, KT Sullivan, has a wonderful voice, but she really comes into her own when she imitates such famous leading ladies as Elaine Stritch and Marlene Dietrich. In the voice of Elaine Stritch, she delivers a particularly rousing rendition of “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” full of such zingers as, “What explains this mass mania to leave Pennsylvania?”.
With her cloud of blond hair as fluffy as Coward’s lyrics and her floaty lounge singer outfit, Sullivan brings an extraordinary level of emotion to the love songs – on several occasions she is clearly close to tears. “Extraordinary, how potent cheap music is,” she quips as Gertrude Lawrence about one of Coward’s most beloved songs “Someday I’ll Find You”.
The selection of songs and letters are the choice of Barry Day who is something of a one-man Noël Coward industry. He has written more than a dozen books about him. While the rundown includes many of Coward’s most verbally dazzling lyrical songs, some of the links between songs that do not come verbatim from the letters are clunky and awkward. The two performers have the text of the letters on large print copies to refer to. While the props add a welcome bit of business to the show, the reading of the letters slows the action a little and in Irish’s Reps small basement space the print is so large that those in the front few rows can read along with the actors. The songs are the heart of the show and perfect renditions of such wry numbers as “Bronxville Darby and Joan” are worth the price of entry in themselves. Ross and Sullivan nail the aging couple who, on the surface, are a charming example of marital bliss: “We’re just sweet old darlings who torment one another, / With utmost maliciousness and spite”. Like many of the songs, the melody and line breaks make performing Coward’s lyrics in this setting a challenge and it’s here that the direction of Charlotte Moore is evident.
The overall tone of the show is unwaveringly affectionate to Coward. There’s barely a reference to his less successful ventures except to say that he retired to Jamaica to lick his wounds. But while, Coward revived his career for a few years after World War II on the cabaret circuit, he largely relied on his earlier repertoire with its distinctly stilted, class-bound mannerisms. The lyrics are extremely clever and – if the final number where the audience was invited to sing-along is anything to go by – extremely memorable as well.