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Love Nöel: The Songs and Letters of Nöel Coward
There are probably greater painters than Nöel 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, and so on. If there are, they are fourteen different people. Only one man combines all fourteen different talents — The Master, Nöel Coward Lord Louis Mountbatten's toast to Nöel Coward.
KT Sullivan and Steve Ross (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
In a delightful 90-minute salute to "The Master, Nöel Coward," cabaret favorites Steve Ross and KT Sullivan winnow through a melange of letters and songs to illuminate the man, his friends and his era. As described in this two-hander, he was, "a Renaissance Man who just happened to live in the 20th Century" and Ross and Sullivan are here to celebrate an entire aura of glamour and sophistication personified by this talent. These two performers, trading bon mots and fully appreciating Coward's delicious wit and poignancy with this spirited remembrance.

Devised and written by Coward scholar Barry Day Love Nöel : The Songs and Letters of Nöel Coward is currently playing at the intimate W. Scott Lucas Studio Theater of the Irish Repertory Theater. Much of his life was recorded in articulate letters, creating a treasure trove when you consider Coward's prodigious output of songs and plays and his career acting, performing, even volunteering for British propaganda in World War II. Were Coward alive today, he may have explained about taking time for letter-writing, "We weren't twittering and tweeting and emailing and Facebooking. . .I'd like to think some of the things we wrote will still be around when the last email has been deleted."

Directed by Charlotte Moore, at the top of the show, dapper Steve Ross settles at the Steinway baby piano, fingers confidently traveling over the piano keys evincing by-gone melodies of another time, yet intrinsically familiar. Enter KT Sullivan, draped theatrically in sparkling red and black. She remarks, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is. . . Didn't Nöel say something to that effect?" Replies the pianist, "He said exactly that —and to exactly that piece of music. He also said he'd always taken light music seriously. It told you where you were when you first heard it."

And that's how the memories unfold through letters and music of nostalgia and submerged passion like "Someday I'll Find You," "I'll See You Again" and "You Were There." Ross, with a very British accent (most of the time), takes on the role of Coward, on piano, vocals and chitchat. Sullivan draws on her soprano vocals as well as her considerable acting and comedic talents to bring out the essence of the many women in Coward's life. First, of course, was "Mummy" (Violet) and her letters of doting support (". . . I always feel that I am really and truly more proud of his love for me than of his great success.")

The entourage of admiring women included Greta Garbo, Lynn Fontanne, Edna Ferber and The Queen Mother. His muse, however, was "Gertie" (Gertrude Lawrence), recalled with KT's yearning "Mad About the Boy," (with the very-Cowardesque line, "Will it ever cloy?/ This odd diversity of misery and joy?"). Immediately after, Ross adds a Coward verse revealing how mad he is about that boy. Also notable when Sullivan lowers her tone for Marlene Dietrich's despairing, "Never Again" and letting loose with an Elaine Stritch-style screeching complaint of, "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" Ross, remains unbeatable in songs like "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington," with timing, stress and delicious bite.

Coward liked associating with people of renown and they were amused and entertained by him. The Queen Mum often visited him at his last home in Jamaica. Yet, among the 22 songs, we hear a strain of the loneliness Coward felt in the midst of all the dazzle and charisma. Sullivan brings out the tristesse of "If Love Were All," and Ross reveals "I Travel Alone" ("Free from love's illusion/ My heart is my own").

James Morgan created a spare set centered with the piano, two bouquets of flowers, a chair for Sullivan to lounge in and contemplate. Around the piano, Morgan leaves space for Sullivan to stroll about and pose. Upstage, surveying all, is a bust of Coward and with sensitive lighting by Michael Gottlieb.

Steve Ross and KT Sullivan know the Nöel Coward canon well and appreciate the humor and pathos of the articulate wit, innuendo, and insinuating melodies in the songbook of this 20th century Renaissance man who had more than "just a talent to amuse."

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Love Nöel : The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward Devised and Written: Barry Day
Director: Charlotte Moore
Cast: Steve Ross and KT Sullivan
Set Design: James Morgan
Lighting Design: Michael Gottlieb
Properties: Brooke Von Hensbergen
Production Stage Manager: Jeff Davolt
Produced: Manhattan Theater Club Running Time: 90 minutes.
Theatre: Irish Repertory Theater. W. Scott Lucas Studio Theater. 132 West 22 St.
Tickets: Tickets $50. Members $0-40. 212-727-2737.
Performances: Wed. at 3pm and 8pm. Thurs at 7pm, Fri at 8pm, Sat at 3pm and 8pm, Sun at 3pm
Preview: 7/26/19. Opens: 8/01/19. Closes: 8/25/19.
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 07/28/19

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