Lord Louis Mountbatten gave a speech at a 70th birthday party honoring his friend Noel Coward in which he said, “There are probably greater painters than Noel, greater novelists than Noel, greater librettists, greater composers of music” and went on to include singers, dancers, comedians, tragedians, stage producers, film directors, cabaret artists, TV stars. “If there are,” he concluded, “they are 14 different people.” A great many of these personas are brought to life by cabaret veterans Steve Ross and KT Sullivan in Love, Noel: The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward, the charming play with music devised and written by Barry Day, in production until Sunday at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
“I don’t think anyone has ever made a better summary of the man who bestrode the first three-quarters of the last century,”says Sullivan in her role as Woman. “He did everything and knew everyone, as his letters testify.”
Under the direction of Charlotte Moore, Ross and Sullivan read many of those letters and sing two dozen of Coward’s songs during the chuck-full 80-minute show. Coward wrote to his mother weekly when they were apart and she saved every letter for 50 years. Fortunately many others were saved as well.
The letters and supporting material are presented in character — the debonair Ross is a worthy embodiment of the debonair Coward — or in dialogue as Man and Woman. Many of the famous people who made up Coward’s orbit appear in delightful ways. Sullivan is hilarious hamming it up as Elaine Stritch singing “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” She also does delicious takes on Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.
At the start of the show I was startled by the stars’ appearances. The older woman next to me said to her companion, “They’ve aged.” That was my reaction. I thought back to the last time I had seen either singer and realize it’s probably been a decade. I should have expected they would have changed — I don’t even recognize myself in the mirror anymore — but I wasn’t prepared.
Then when they sang the opening number, “Where Are the Songs We Sung,” it seemed so lifeless I wondered if age had diminished their talent as well. But not to worry. In a short time they were lively storytellers and singers. Sullivan occasionally spoke so fast I didn’t have time to take in all of the wonderful anecdotes she was spinning. Only at first, though.
One thing not affected by time is Sullivan’s gorgeous soprano. She has the same exquisite voice she has always had. And Ross can play the piano as powerfully as ever.
It was nice to see these two together for an entire show. I’ve seen them join for a song or two at the Dutch Treat Club but never for such an extended project. They are both well established solo cabaret stars but they play together in Love, Noel as if they’ve been an act for years. The mark of true professionals and true talent.
The creative team also offers talent and professionalism. James Morgan has created a simple and tasteful set (doesn’t he always?) for the downstairs Studio Stage — a baby grand center stage before a royal blue backdrop and a bust of Coward. Michael Gottlieb provides appropriate lighting.
The friend who accompanied me and I are both going through a really rough time but we left the theatre with greatly uplifted hearts.