Los Angeles Theater Review: LOVE, NOËL: THE LETTERS AND SONGS OF NOËL COWARD (The Wallis)

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by Tony Frankel on February 18, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


My darling, dearest Noël:

It only just occurred to me that I haven’t written you since I saw your play Peace in our Time. Do forgive me, lamb chop. Let me cut to the quick as I write from sun-drenched Beverly Hills and the pool is waiting, even in the middle of winter. I wasn’t sure if you knew, Mr. Toad, but a brand new show, Love, Noël: The Letters and Songs of Noël Coward, has just opened at the swanky and pristine Wallis Annenberg  in LOVE, NOËL" THE LETTERS AND SONGS OF NOËL COWARD at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.Center (I’ve enclosed photos). You have to love that your name is in the title twice, but that attests to the fact that we can’t get enough of you, n’est-ce pas?

As the subtitle implies, two performers read some of your personal letters aloud, interspersing them with your mostly popular ditties: the jaunty “I Like America,” the torchy “Mad About the Boy,” and the bittersweet “If Love Were All” among them. They are all, as you know, rife with idiosyncratic musical phrasing and shrewd lyrics. David O. delivers astute accompaniment on a gorgeous grand piano, not once overwhelming the singers, who I will come to anon.

I must say I barely recognized the black box theatre, which only recently contained raked rows of seating for that clever little children’s show, Jason and the Argonauts. Now it has been transformed into a sumptuous nightclub, with linen-covered tables and dimly lit Art Deco fixtures. You especially would adore that one can arrive early  in LOVE, NOËL" THE LETTERS AND SONGS OF NOËL COWARD at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.for cocktails and light fare while well-dressed, surreptitious servers wait on you, but imbibing is not compulsory (unless, of course, you’re you).

Needless to say, this entertainment devised by Barry Day (a Coward authority, your favorite kind of expert) is a terribly gay affair, cobbled together from a lifetime of your merry missives, which have been compiled and published in full with annotations by Day as—are you ready, Puss?—The Letters of Noël Coward.  To his credit, Day selected just a sprinkling of communiqués—the show lasts a mere 75 minutes, 90 with the interval—which highlight your wit, drollery, sophistication, joy, kindness, imperturbability, and, as Marlene Dietrich wrote, intelligence and brain food.

Under Jeanie Hackett’s direction, the evening is lightweight yet there is enough intellectual nourishment to satiate the senses (I suppose it’s acceptable to skip the entrée and head right for the crème brûlée). With letters to and from literati (Virginia Woolfe), and luminaries of stage (that lush Elaine Stritch!) and screen (Greta Garbo, who asked you to be her “little bride”), it’s as if we are living  in LOVE, NOËL" THE LETTERS AND SONGS OF NOËL COWARD at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.vicariously in the theatre or globetrotting with the chattering classes.

The actors narrate, sing, and assume the guises of people from your letters. John Glover is dashingly grizzled wearing a salt-and-pepper beard and tuxedo. He appears as British as a cup of tea at 4:00, and he speaks his songs on pitch á la Rex Harrison. The ageless Judy Kuhn is un rêve as the many, many, many women in your life. Truly, Luv, she doesn’t look at all like fifty-fi a day older than when she first astonished me in the Broadway revival of She Loves Me twenty years ago. (I, on the other hand, have aged as well as a cask of Two-buck Chuck.) She, being a fine actress in addition to having one of the loveliest voices it has ever been my privilege to hear, endowed every song with a special magic and, despite the fact that the show was only partially memorized, she contrives to enchant the public.

You “heard” me correctly, my petit umlaut. Partially memorized. You see, both thespians speak and sing from scripts on music stands. As the French would say, Il y a une couille dans le potage (“There is a testicle in the soup”). It’s just too, too horrid and it merely serves to cheapen the event and disconnect the performers from their audience. To add haggis to Vegemite, both of them actually flub enough lines to  in LOVE, NOËL" THE LETTERS AND SONGS OF NOËL COWARD at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.merit a mention. And, really, at $75 per derrière (sans sustenance), one expects both a bit more professionalism and that the theatre be treated as the Dionysian Temple that it is. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

It is also molto molto curioso when Kuhn narrates, “In a letter to his lover…”—and then nothing more about your love life, my happy caballero. Talk about private lives! This show is as closeted as a mink stole in July.

Of course, Day is heedful of the lifelong friendship with your stage partner Gertrude Lawrence, and your sense of patriotism in WWII France is keenly felt, but he skirts letters which articulate your true disappointments and anger. I understand. It’s called an “entertainment.” But we want everything to be desperately real and true and sincere; the show never hits our solar plexus because, as slick and entertaining as it may be, your life is just a cabaret in the Lovelace Studio Theater. Or am I being, as you would say, a wicked, grasping old bitch?

Enough. Here’s hoping this merry missive reaches you safely, Noëllie. Always remember the delight you brought to the world and persnickety critics such as yours truly.


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photos by Ed Krieger

Love, Noël: The Letters and Songs of Noël Coward
Lovelace Studio Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills
scheduled to end on February 23, 2014
for tickets, call 310-746-4000 or visit www.thewallis.org

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