Sunday, December 28, 2014


According to Toby Zinman, NOEL AND GERTIE, a musical biography of Noel Coward's friendship with Gertrude Lawrence, tries for old-timey savoir faire, but manages only old-timey.



By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer


Add  a velvet smoking jacket and a satin gown to the basic ingredients of cocktails and repartee, and you’ve got the start of a Noel Coward play—or, in this case a play about Noel Coward. Noel 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 Noel Coward, the 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 by 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.

It begins with an old Noel Coward wishing he could see Gertie again. He recalls their performing as children in Liverpool, and we move through time—successes and flops, in London, in New York, until both of them became rich and famous, “the bitter palliative of commercial success” let them lead lavish lives onstage and off. 

There are scenes from Coward’s plays; the best is the scene from Private Lives where a divorced couple find that they are honeymooning with their new husband and wife 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, although 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 Noel Coward fans, but it has little to offer by way of real theatrical entertainment.


Independence Studio on 3, Walnut Street Theatre, 9th & Walnut Sts. Through Dec.31.

Tickets $30. Information: 215-574-3550 or

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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