What could have been only an entertaining cabaret act has been built into a delightful theater work celebrating the songs and letters of Noël Coward as well as the creative man himself. A lovely intimacy has been created in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s downstairs Studio Theatre, with co-stars Steve Ross and KT Sullivan enchanting us by sharing samplings of Coward’s extensive repertoire and revealing his associations and persona as expressed in correspondence with notables of his day. Coward was born in 1899 in Middlesex, England. He died in 1973 at the age of 73 after a long, illustrious career as a playwright, composer, lyricist, actor and director.
In addition to praising Ross and Sullivan, I can’t stress enough what director Charlotte Moore has achieved in working with them in this show devised and written by Barry Day. The result is as if we have been invited into a private salon to share music and conversation. The tone is one of sophistication, as befits Coward, who achieved the height of sophistication in his songs and writing. “Love, Noël” sustains its mood of intimacy throughout the show’s running time of 90 minutes without the interruption of an intermission.
Scenic designer James Morgan has provided a simple environment, with a bust of Coward prominently displayed, a piano, a stool and an easy chair. The show begins with Ross entering, going over to the bust, and staring as if paying homage. He is soon joined by Sullivan, both wistfully singing “Where Are the Songs We Sung?” and then in duets and solos, they move into the world of Coward with well-scripted finesse.
Not only do they sing, but reading from Coward’s correspondence, they stress his wit and the various connections he had with notables, including actress Gertrude Lawrence, whom he greatly admired and was saddened by her death in 1952 at the age of 54. There were also, among others, connections with Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Elaine Stritch. Sullivan does amusing right-on imitations of the later three. I have known Sullivan primarily through her enjoyable cabaret performances, but her earlier theater work is reflected in her fine acting here and the perfect control in her tightly written role without the kind of nightclub chatter that goes with cabaret.
Ross is a master of integrating piano and singing, as he does in performances in assorted countries as well as many parts of the United States. His role here calls for him to be the voice of Coward in the sharing of correspondence. He consistently maintains an aura of elegance and knows how to get a laugh out of a witty Coward line.
Ultimately, the songs are the main attraction. Ross taps into the comic vein with “Mrs. Worthington,” advising the lady not to put her daughter on the stage. Sullivan tears into “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” with a vengeance and the result is extremely funny.
Both sing “Mad About the Boy,” and when Coward handles the lyrics, there is the implicit suggestion of male-to-male attraction. We are rewarded with fresh interpretations of Coward’s more sentimental songs—“If Love Were All,” “Someday I’ll Find You,” “I’ll See You Again” and “The Party’s Over Now,” the latter appropriately concluding the show. Sullivan reveals an exquisite voice and Ross shows his expertise on the piano while singing simultaneously, an art he has long displayed since his early performing days.
There are also songs that are lesser known—“I Like America,” “Together With Music,” “Never Again,” “Bronxville Darby and Joan,” “I Travel Alone,” “World Weary” and others. The combination of Ross and Sullivan is engagingly smooth, and by the end of the performance, one can feel the satisfaction of having entered the realm of Coward and gained further knowledge about his remarkable talent and what a unique person he was. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-727-2737.