Corrections or additions?

This review by Jack Florek was prepared for the February 21,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Noel and Gertie’

Although nostalgia is nothing new, it nearly always

stays in style.

Now that the millennium has inarguably turned, it is perhaps

especially

pleasant for theater-goers to sip from the well (or in this case,

the Martini glass) of the once popular fare of 20th century’s bygone

age. The Marx Brothers, the Beatles, and "Give `em Hell" Harry

Truman, among others, all continue to have their theatrical recreators

and enthusiastic audiences. Yet much of the success of these

"tributes,"

as they are often called, depends upon the skill and sensitivities

of the performers. In this regard the Off-Broadstreet Theater’s

production

of "Noel and Gertie," a musical tribute to Noel Coward and

Gertrude Lawrence, is exceptional.

Noel Coward’s work isn’t often performed these days, but his

popularity,

as a playwright, composer, and performer, was once profound.

Throughout

his heyday of the 1920s and 1930s, Coward whipped up such popular

gems as "The Vortex," "Private Lives," and

"Tonight

at 8:30," plays that attracted throngs to his breezy depictions

of wit, sophistication, and elegance. Perhaps the best indication

of the power of Coward’s early prestige could be that although few

theater-goers have actually seen any of his plays, nearly everyone

seems to be aware of the typical Coward trappings of a sharply dressed

personage uttering urbane witticisms while balancing a cigarette

holder

in one hand and an empty Martini glass in the other.

At its surface, "Noel and Gertie" chronicles the lifelong

friendship between Coward and the talented and mercurial performer

Gertie Lawrence, for whom he wrote his biggest hit, "Private

Lives."

Culled from Coward’s journals and letters as well as snatches from

his plays, it is a straightforward and idealized portrayal of two

devoted friends as they travel along the sometimes bumpy terrain of

20th-century show business.

Bolstered by a healthy selection of Coward’s show tunes

and peppered with comic banter from some of his plays ("Why is

gettin’ up at 6 o’clock in the morning like a pig’s tail?" "I

don’t know dear, why is gettin’ up at 6 o’clock in the morning like

a pig’s tail?" "T’wirly."), "Noel and Gertie"

was created by British drama critic and Coward biographer Sheridan

Morley. The show had its premiere in London in 1985; it was revived

and adapted in 1999, in honor of Coward’s 100th birthday, under the

title "If Love Were All."

"Noel and Gertie" is anything but a stodgy staged biography.

(In fact, it barely touches on anything controversial, such as

Coward’s

homosexuality.) The nice thing about the Off-Broadstreet production

is that even theater-goers who are not particular fans of Coward will

enjoy the show. Lead performers Laura Jackson and Edward Teti deftly

execute their roles, delivering performances that pulse with the

simple

joys of entertaining us.

As the two painted portraits of Coward and Lawrence that hang above

the stage make clear, neither performer bears much of a physical

resemblance

to their real-life character. Jackson is much taller and voluptuous

than the petite Gertrude Lawrence could ever have dreamed of, but

Jackson’s mercurial stage energy and downright beautiful singing voice

more than compensate. Also, the fact that she so obviously enjoys

herself on stage is no small part of her infectious charm.

Similarly, Teti, despite being variously attired in a tuxedo, a

smoking

jacket, and a shimmering, expensive-looking robe, does not exude the

sort of slickness or suavity that one usually imagines Coward to have

possessed. But nonetheless, he informs his performance with such real

warmth and concern — both for his work and for his friend —

that he is a delight to watch. Although Teti’s occasional dance steps

are anything but polished, in fact they are charmingly clumsy; his

voice is certainly first rate.

Jackson and Teti play off one another with a casualness that they

make look easy, but in fact must be the result of long hours of

rehearsal.

It is this onstage chemistry, despite being delightfully low-key,

that is the heart and blood of the evening. They are simply likable,

and throughout the show, whether their singing voices are merging

like strips of colored smoke, or as they affectionately banter back

and forth like a well-matched married couple, it is this likability

that draws us in, and in the end, makes the evening such a success.

Paul Sulyok, as the pianist, contributes significantly to the show’s

success. Playing a piano as accompaniment is very different from

playing

it alone and throughout each singing number, he displays a real touch

for elegantly complementing each song, never playing too forcefully,

nor drawing back too far. He is also more than just a piano player,

as throughout the play his eyes and energy are always focused on the

action of the play. One gets the feeling that the performers are

performing

as much for his eyes as for those of the audience.

Robert Thick, to his credit, gives the performers the space to be

themselves, letting them discover the humanity behind their characters

rather than insisting on dogged superficial similarities. He also

knows how to keep things moving, but subtly, as if propelled by a

light summer breeze.

Housed in an old-time movie house as it is, Off-Broadstreet Theater

is always a charming place to see a play, but occupied by these

spirits

of the past, it is absolutely perfect. And the past, as idealized

as it may be, is certainly a nice place to visit from time to time.

Long live Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. As the Monkees

said, "Look out, here comes tomorrow." Perhaps it helps to

know that someday even Britney Spears will be an oldies act.

— Jack Florek

Noel and Gertie, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South

Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Fridays to Sundays, through

March 24. $20.50 and $22 includes dessert and coffee.


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