By: Sarah Downs
Noël Coward wrote in Private Lives, “It’s extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” It’s an ironic observations, considering Coward’s work was quite potent, yet never cheap. His music has staying power. Whether it is the wicked lyrics of “Bronxville Darby and Joan” or the heartfelt nostalgia of “Someday I’ll Find You” he could write it all.
In Love, Noël: The Songs and Letters of Noël Coward, K.T. Sullivan and Steve Ross trace the career of Noël Coward through his music and a treasure of trove of letters he left behind upon his death. Through them we see behind the curtain, from the artist composing for a sophisticated public to the man writing for an audience of one.
Charlotte Moore has directed Sullivan and Ross to be both narrators and actors, alternately reading from Coward’s letters and impersonating the characters in his life. Shot in warm colors in the intimate space of an elegant drawing room, the piece comes to life as the singers move around the space. The use of close-ups and shooting the singers in conversation, singing to each other, in addition to the traditional singing at the piano keeps the performance from being static.
With “Where Are the Songs We Sung” K.T. Sullivan kicks off the show in retrospect, looking back at the life and work of a gifted man who flouted convention and yet created a standard by which musical satire is measured. His wit, his sensitivity, his insight – sometimes sly, sometimes straightforward – elevated his work to a level few could equal. (“Where, in the Limbo of the swiftly passing years; Lie all our hopes and dreams and fears…Where in the shadows that we have to pass among; Lie those songs that we once sung?”)
He had so much talent. On top of writing sophisticated drawing room comedies and clever songs, Coward co-directed the patriotic World War II drama In Which We Serve, in which he also starred, and for which he also composed the music.
Coward had many close, lifelong relationships with women, starting with his overly attached mother to Lynn Fontanne to Elaine Stritch to Greta Garbo. Marlene Dietrich was also “Mad About the Boy.” It was Gertrude Lawrence, however, who became the centerpiece of his career. Indeed, Gertie was really the love of his life. You hear it in songs like “You Were There” and “I’ll See You Again.” Sullivan’s performance of the latter brought a tear to my eyes. (“Though the world may go awry; and we never said good-bye; I shall love her till I die.”)
In her dramatic red dress decorated with black beads, K.T. Sullivan is a glamorous chanteuse. Steve Ross looks as if he stepped out of a 1930’s film by Hermes Pan – elegantly charming in his tuxedo, with that theatricality that makes cabaret an event. He tosses off the lyrics of songs like “Don’t Let Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington” with practiced ease. His interpretation of “I’ll Remember Her” was very touching.
Sullivan’s modern expression complements Ross’s vintage suavité. She is particularly funny playing a crazed Noël Coward fan, complete with manic gaze and fluttering feather boa. Sullivan drops the smile for some well-timed, heartfelt moments, exploring the various colors of Coward’s writing. Famed for his quick wit and ‘performance’, Coward could yet hand a performer the kind of material you can sink your emotional teeth into.
The Players is the perfect setting for this cabaret. Founded by Edwin Booth as a place where men from the arts, journalism and commerce could gather, The Players is intended to be a place where actors can “get away from the glamour of the theatre.” Considering the club is housed in a gorgeous building designed by architect Stanford White, it’s hard to quote that stated goal with a straight face. (Trust an actor to be a wee bit disingenuous …). Nevertheless, it is the perfect location for this performance. Dripping with oil paintings and elegant décor, it’s the kind of place in which Coward would have happily held court, at the piano or in the bar.
Love, Noël: The Songs and Letters of Noël Coward, a performance onscreen, conceived by Barry Day. Starring K.T. Sullivan and Steve Ross. Directed by Charlotte Moore. Set design by James Morgan; lighting design by Michael Gottlieb, At the Irish Repertory Theater online. August 11 – 15. For tickets click HERE