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Theatre in Review: Love, Noël: The Songs and Letters of Noël Coward (Irish Repertory Theatre Online)

Steve Ross. Photo: Courtesy of Irish Rep.

"Strange how potent cheap music is." This line of dialogue, one of Noël Coward's most famous -- it's from Private Lives -- hardly applies to his own output, which long ago took its place among the crown jewels of the musical theatre and cabaret worlds. In this production, they are handled with silken delicacy and the utmost respect by the cabaret artists Steve Ross and KT Sullivan; it's an approach that highlights the distinctive chiaroscuro blend of glittering wit and understated rue that constituted Coward's sensibility.

Irish Rep has been remarkably inventive in putting its productions online. The clever manipulation of digital imagery allowed the cast of Conor McPherson's The Weir to apparently inhabit the same environment, even though each actor was in a different location. For Love, Noël, the two performers have been admitted into the august confines of The Players in Gramercy Park. It's an ideal environment: its atmosphere of faintly faded luxury -- especially the paintings of many theatre worthies of the past -- is most appropriate for songs that, even at their most romantic, are marked by an awareness of the clock's relentless ticking. Such numbers as "Where Are the Songs We Sung?," "Someday I'll Find You," and "I'll Remember Her" communicate a melancholy sense that even the most violent emotions are inevitably muted by the passing of the years.

Both performers are also blessed with innate comic sensibilities. Ross -- he of the ramrod posture, impeccably clipped diction, and seamless keyboard technique -- is at home equally with the impudent double entendres of "I Like America," which postulates the existence of as many approaches to sex as there are US cities, and the acidly amusing "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington," a warning to a stage mother that begins in pained restraint and descends into furious, untrammeled abuse. Sullivan approaches her numbers with a faintly pixilated grandeur, throwing herself against the nearest pillar for "Mad About the Boy" and adopting an Elaine Stritch growl for that unforgettable cri de coeur, "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" ("What explains this mass mania/To leave Pennsylvania/And clack around like a flock of geese/Demanding dry martinis on the isles of Greece?") They also partner like gin and tonic on many numbers, especially in a suite of songs about London, the object of Coward's most ardent emotions. They offer an especially lovely rendition of "London Pride," his tribute to the Blitz-weary metropolis; for him, it is forever "the cradle of our memories, our hopes, and fears."

And because Barry Day's entertainment is also drawn from Coward's letters, we get a veritable anthology of stories -- most of them wickedly amusing -- about twentieth-century celebrities, including George Bernard Shaw, Greta Garbo, Mary Martin, and Marlene Dietrich. (The last is given what-for by Coward for allowing her lover, Yul Brynner, to treat her like dirt; it's a great example of his tough love at work.) Most touching of all is the account of Coward's long-running friendship with the brilliant, exasperating, and, ultimately, tragic Gertrude Lawrence; when she died far too young, it's easy to feel she took a piece of his heart with her.

Under Charlotte Moore's direction, it's a delightfully intimate entertainment, a champagne cocktail with a bracing dash of bitters, and the small-screen presentation suits it perfectly. In the middle of a most dismal summer, this time-limited production -- it only runs through August 15 -- is a tonic for frayed spirits. --David Barbour

(13 August 2020)

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