Theater review by Helen Shaw
The Noël Coward touch was always a light one. His music scampers like a mouse; his lyrics bounce like balloons. In his plays, even suffering has an upward tendency. But when his work is excerpted and performed by others, that glancing quality can turn coy and saccharine, as it sometimes does in Barry Day’s two-handed cabaret Love, Noël.
Reading from Coward’s letters and covering nearly two dozen songs, cabaret stars Steve Ross and KT Sullivan pay Coward tribute. Sometimes Ross, the longtime king of café cabaret, is his own tuxedoed self, and sometimes he’s pretending to be Coward; an amused-seeming Sullivan takes on all the women. (She does a great, gloomy Marlene Dietrich.) Day’s text is a spindly framework, built from constructions like “Wasn’t it Lord Mountbatten who said…?” that lead into quotations about or by Coward. These nonmusical sequences are a bit gluey, and as source material, the letters are strangely non-intimate.
Luckily, the banter’s just a pretext to get Ross’s hands moving confidently over the keys again. The duo sings “Mad About the Boy,” “Together with Music” and “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart,” and Sullivan’s fairy-footed soprano gleams like metal. Ross creaks a little (he’s been performing in New York since 1968), but his affinity for the music sustains and buoys him. You can hear the effort—but the songs convince us that we’re wrong, that we’re hearing only lightness and the dance.
Irish Repertory Theatre (Off Broadway). By Barry Day. Directed by Charlotte Moore. With Steve Ross and KT Sullivan. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.