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Theater review: Life Is for Living serves Noël Coward dry and with a twist

By David Cote

The title of Simon Green’s sincere tribute to Noël Coward is a deep cut. On the beloved 1955 LP Noël Coward at Las Vegas, the writer-actor recalls how he was inspired to compose “A Bar on the Piccola Marina” while vacationing on the isle of Capri and witnessing “hordes of middle-aged ladies arriving on boats, obviously all set to have themselves a ball.” The heroine of his song, Coward says, realizes “in the nick of time that life is for living.” The satirical ditty that follows is funny, camp, a trifle cruel and delightfully saucy. I’m afraid too few of those attributes—and not a verse "Piccola Marina" itself—have transmigrated into Green’s cabaret act.

Over 70 minutes and about two-dozen tunes, Green skims lightly over Coward’s life and art as a playwright, matinee idol, songwriter, bon vivant and embodiment of stiff-upper-Englishness. The performer’s light tenor nicely evokes Coward’s early recordings, but serves less well for later, more acerbic items such as “What's Going To Happen to the Tots.” With light, crisp diction he navigates Coward’s twisty, rhyme-packed lyrics, but his comic attack is too gentle. And Green seems determined to elevate Coward’s brittle, slightly misanthropic humor with melancholy wistfulness. The cheerfully louche patter song, “I Went to a Marvelous Party” comes across here like a hesitant, brooding mediation on time and mortality.

Coward fans may be engaged by the occasional snippet from the master’s poetry, letters or diary entries (some neatly set by accompanist-composer David Shrubsole), but you just wish there were more of his songs on the program, delivered with waspish, dry wit. I counted about six bona fide Coward tracks, plus a medley at the very end. Interpolating material by too many other writers (Ivor Novello, George and Ira Gershwin, Maya Angelou), there’s a focus problem here. If these are “conversations” with Coward, as the subtitle has it, they’re a bit one-sided.

59E59 (Off Broadway). Created and compiled by Simon Green and David Shrubsole. Music and lyrics by various. With Green. Running time: 1hr 10mins. No intermission. Through January 1. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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