Love, Noel: The Letters and Songs of Noel Coward: Theater Review
A staged pastiche of Noel Coward's correspondence arrives, fittingly, at the former Beverly Hills post office.
The new intimate room at the old Beverly Hills post office has been nostalgically configured as a vintage supper club with alcohol and food service for this sentimental yet substantial cabaret performance of Noel Coward's words and music by a pair of genuine theatrical stars, John Glover and Judy Kuhn. In a satisfyingly full 90 minutes (including the de rigueur intermission to refill cocktails), Glover assumes the role, if not the persona, of the incomparably talented Coward, while Kuhn reads from the letters of his eminent female intimates. One sings, the other doesn’t, though he can carry a mild tune while suggesting the creator’s familiar clipped manner and acting the hell out of a lyric, and she has pipes splendid enough to carry them both.
Presented as a tasty companion to the stage adaptation of Coward's screenplay for Brief Encounter opening in the Wallis Annenberg Center’s larger Bram Goldsmith space, Love, Noel presents tantalizing snippets that reveal a more private, notably less brittle, yet recognizably incomparable personality. It’s sincerely concerned for the tribulations of his correspondents and deeply committed to his patriotic efforts on behalf of the British war effort. Kuhn actually has a meatier challenge, reading on behalf of such luminaries as Gertrude Lawrence, Esme Wynne-Tyson, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Sitwell, Lynne Fontanne and Daphne DuMaurier, among many others, and while she wisely sidesteps impersonations, she has a good ear and obviously has researched all their voices to achieve preternatural inflections and style. Similarly, Glover projects just a slight dash of the essence of the actual Coward, but with the acumen to be accurate in those elements he suggests.
Ah, but those ineffably sophisticated yet cannily commercial songs effortlessly steal the show. Mostly familiar ones, yet so evergreen: "Someday I’ll Find You", "Mad About the Boy", "I’ll See You Again." The astonishing melodic and lyrical complexity of the two verses of "World Weary" represent the kind of pinnacle of popular songwriting only attained by the likes of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern or Harold Arlen. There are some welcome novelty numbers representative of his satiric wit, although they tend to reside more snugly in their period realm. Ringers by Hollander and Kern-Hammerstein, while swell, seem a failure of inspiration given the breadth of Coward's catalogue. It's a regret and a strength that the show leaves one wanting so many more.
Director Jeanie Hackett, who during her tenure at the Antaeus Company spearheaded some innovative Coward revivals (the American premiere of Peace in Our Time, Tonight at 8:30), rigorously applies good taste and restraint on the interpretations, almost to a fault in a most low-key opening of "If Love Were All," as good a valedictory number as ever penned. Yeoman service is rendered at the piano by a most sympathetic yet hardly effacing David O. However, both players were still leaning on book, which doubtless will improve with each performance.
This is a sort of unabashedly old-fashioned entertainment that remains bracingly deft, droll and insightful, even as it plies its antique arts: In short, its classic virtues may be perceived differently over time but that is never to imply that its pleasures are anything less than immediate.
Venue: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Lovelace Studio Theater, Beverly Hills (through Feb. 23)
Cast: John Glover, Judy Kuhn
Director: Jeanie Hackett
Writer: Devised by Barry Day, letters and songs by Noel Coward
Musical Director & Pianist: David O