Review by Constance Rodgers

The prolific dandy Noёl Coward was dubbed The Master, though as Coward himself says, he was more a “jack of all trades than a master of one.” In a tribute on Coward’s seventieth birthday Lord Mountbatten said, “There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars. If there are, they are fourteen different people. Only one man combined all fourteen different labels.”

We enter the intimate space of the W. Scott McLucas Studio at the Irish Repertory Theatre to James Morgan’s elegant royal blue stage design and, LOVE, NOЁL The Songs and Letters of Noёl Coward, has begun. The focal point of the salon like set is a bust of this modern man, from a different century, holding court upstage as expressionless as he was in real life. Though Coward’s face was impressively placid, his wit, charm and often caustic analysis of the stars and royals he surrounded himself with is impressively present in his words. LOVE, NOЁL, stars the two highly admired cabaret performers, Steve Ross and KT Sullivan, who sing Coward’s songs and read brilliant passages from letters written by and to him.

Ross and Sullivan both move seamlessly back and forth between speaking to us about Coward and his friends, and speaking as Coward and his friends. Sullivan imitates other singer’s styles with finesse. Her version of, “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”, done in the style of the inimitable Elaine Stritch is a highlight of the show. Sullivan takes on a depth of character and timber that pays respect to Stritch without being cartoonish or losing Sullivan’s own clarity of voice. Sullivan portrays several of Coward’s many female friends with humor and heart (Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Mary Martin and Gertrude Lawrence). Steve Ross possesses a straight forward ease with Coward’s compositions, evident in both piano and voice. There is no affectation in Ross’ delivery, no exaggerated vocals or piano solos. This allows us to give our attention to the lyrics, which are really where Coward shines. Ross in moments appears and sounds as what I imagine Coward did in private moments with his friends and lovers. No pretense, no camp.

Noёl Coward had many meaningful and lasting friendships with women, even love affairs of the heart. Though everyone knew Coward was homosexual it was never publicly spoken of, but in private company it was not hidden, but often joked about and even tenderly spoken of. A letter to Coward from Garbo professes her love for him and jokingly asks him to marry her. He replies that he is tempted, even though “completely immune to any female charm”, and later writes, I might have married Garbo but, “I knew she would want top position.”

Overall the show gives short shrift to Coward’s ballads. The humorous tunes like, “I Like America”, “Bronxville Darby and Joan”, “Mrs. Worthington” and the before mentioned “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” are given fuller performance and are the most memorable. At the opening of the play we are told that the desperately poignant ballad, “If Love Were All”, sums up Noёl Coward. But the sentiments that song expresses, “If love were all than I’d be lonely” and, “Since my life began the most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse.” are not felt during the number itself or the show. Ross and Sullivan are not as strong balladeers as they are comedians. There are twenty-one songs presented in, LOVE, NOЁL, The Songs and Letters of Noёl Coward, perhaps if there were less songs but all with full theatrical delivery we would feel the power and experience the beauty in all the compositions.

Ross delivers Coward’s letters handsomely, with a palpable self-reflection and the requisite self-deprecation. In both Sullivan’s and Ross’ readings from friends you can feel the admiration and wonder his friends felt for his work and the love and care they felt for the man.

Sir Noёl Coward was finally knighted in 1970, just 3 years before his death at his home in Jamaica.

LOVE, NOЁL The Songs and Letters of Noёl Coward, Directed by Charlotte Moore; Devised and Written by Barry Day; Set Design by James Morgan; Lighting Design by Michael Gottlieb
Starring: Steve Ross and KT Sullivan

Irish Repertory Theatre 132 W 22nd St, July 27-August 25, Tickets available at Ovation Tickets, or at the Box Office (212) 727-2737, price $50, Wednesdays and Saturdays 3pm and 8pm, Thursdays 7pm, Fridays 8pm, Sundays 3pm, Running Time 90 minutes no intermission.