'Noël and Gertie': Playwright wouldn't approve

Posted: December 03, 2011

Add a velvet smoking jacket and a satin gown to the basic ingredients of cocktail repartee, and you have the start of a Noël Coward play - or, in this case, a play about Noël Coward. Noël and Gertie, at the Walnut's Independence Studio on 3, attempts that old-timey savoir faire but mostly manages only old-timey.

Will Stutts (who directed) plays Coward, the British playwright, actor, and composer who wrote Private Lives and Blithe Spirit. Susan Wilder plays Gertie, his beloved lifelong friend Gertrude Lawrence, a celebrity actress whose career included The King and I and Lady in the Dark. Although they performed together only rarely, they were identified in the public mind as a twosome, a show-business team.

Sheridan Morley wrote this tribute piece, a biographical reminiscence punctuated and illustrated by songs. Owen Robbins accompanies Stutts and Wilder on the piano - and the couple of moments he's allowed to sing make you wish you could hear more, since his voice is far better than that of the two leads.

The show begins with an old Coward wishing he could see Gertie again. He recalls their performing as children in Liverpool, and we move through time - triumphs and flops, in London, in New York, until both of them became rich and famous, "the bitter palliative of commercial success" letting them lead lavish lives onstage and off.

There are scenes from Coward's plays; the best is the scene from Private Lives in which a divorced couple find they are honeymooning with their new spouses in the same hotel. The least amusing is the old music-hall show Red Peppers, which then leads to tedious backstage bickering.

All the scenes, and almost all the songs, are variations on Blithe Spirit, Coward's play about a man whose dead wife returns as a ghost to haunt him and his new wife. Gertie haunts Coward after her death, just as they each valued their friendship even during long absences.

The tunes "Someday I'll Find You" and "Mrs. Worthington" are the better known of the many sung; "If Love Were All" is one of the very best - especially as Stutts half-speaks, half-sings the bitter lyrics. He can roll his r's with the best of them, and has some of the necessary style, though his singing voice is too quiet. Wilder acts mostly by opening her eyes very wide, and her voice is often unsuited to a melody's range.

The show may please Coward fans, but it has little to offer by way of real theatrical entertainment.

Noël and Gertie

Through Dec. 31 at Independence Studio on 3, Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Tickets: $30. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org

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