“Love, Noël: The Songs and Letters of Noël Coward” written and devised by Barry Day, directed by Charlotte Moore and showcasing the inestimable talents of Steve Ross and KT Sullivan, is a performance on screen presented by The Irish Repertory Theatre (Irish Rep Online, for the times we currently live in) August 11th to the 15th. Filmed at The Players, a historic, private, social club in Gramercy Park founded in 1888 by Edwin Booth, in this sumptuous setting Coward’s spirit welcomes us to his simply marvelous party.
An equally apt title would have been “Noël Coward: the women he loved and who loved him,” as this cabaret-style show is Coward and women-centric, from his mother whom he wrote to for fifty years to his life-long friend and stage partner Gertrude Lawrence.
Steve Ross has been a staple in the New York cabaret community for over 40 years, a “piano man” who appeared off-Broadway in his tribute to Fred Astaire and on Broadway in Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter.” Ross is an excellent Coward stand-in, his accent and manner impeccable, his piano playing divine. He has many fine moments, including an irritant that causes a frown: people who say they have talent and do not. Ross then launches himself into a stinging version of “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington.” There are tender moments, such as when he sings the very beginning of “The Last Time I Saw Paris” a cappella, not because he wrote the song, but because those who did, Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern, dedicated it to Coward because they knew how much that city meant to him.
KT Sullivan, who has a set of formidable pipes that stretch from cabaret to musical theatre, has also been on Broadway in “The Three Penny Opera,” off-Broadway in “American Rhapsody,” and is just as comfortable in that setting as she is at Birdland. So it is not a surprise that the acrobatics in “Love, Noël” belong to Sullivan. From belting out “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” as an hilarious Elaine Stritch, making good use of that long, winding staircase inside The Players; to her Marlene Dietrich mooning over Yul Brenner – “He did not call” !!- to an obnoxious, chattering fan accosting Coward at a quiet dinner after one of his shows, she is a master of versatility. Someone please write Sullivan (virtual, for now) a musical about Elaine Stritch and cast her in it immediately. Sullivan even does a great Greta Garbo, beginning a letter with, “Dear Little Coward…”
Together, Sullivan and Ross have a lovely chemistry. Whether exchanging barbs via letters or sitting next to each other on Ross’s piano bench, there is an ease between the two that suggests they have been friends for years – not unlike the relationships Coward had with many of his close, female friends. So when they perform the wicked “Bronxville Darby and Joan,” and Sullivan’s hand grips Ross’s neck, I believed that, too. At least, for the moment. That is the mark of a genius director, which they have in the sure hand of Charlotte Moore. There is never a false step in this show, there is much laughter and the songs are divine. Given what we have all been through thus far in 2020, the Irish Rep Online have given us another sublime gift. When asked to sum up his life in one word, Coward said, “Love.” I can say the same about “Love, Noël.” It’s pure love.