Anything that Noel Coward wrote, even the mediocre stuff, has a way of putting actors on alert. They must be prepared to have their style, timing and diction put to the test -- not to mention their capacity for the ridiculous.
As "If Love Were All," which opened Wednesday night at MusicalFare Theatre, so amply demonstrates, this alert is in effect even when the play is about Coward. This is no real surprise. Sheridan Morley and Leigh Lawson have drawn on scenes from Coward's plays, on his songs, letters, telegrams and recorded pronouncements, to construct their well-wrought musical drama about the long-running friendship between Coward and performer Gertrude Lawrence.
Brian Riggs and Lisa Ann Ludwig, the engaging pair being tested by this lively little piece of Coward homage, get two gold stars and a free lunch pass. They are triumphant.
Riggs plays Coward himself, a task complicated by the playwright's own unforgettable voice and presence. Riggs is impeccable. He creates a charmingly deliberate character that uses words like little knives, precisely cutting up the air.
I wish that the playwrights had made more fuss about Coward's impish nature when he is speaking; his dedication to nonsense only shows up only in the songs. A more playful speaking Coward would give Riggs another area to ply his multiple skills.
But in any case, Riggs gets the Coward tone without coming off as a mere impersonator. Thankfully, in the tearful final scene Riggs does have a chance, fleeting as it is, to show a bit of his wide-ranging dramatic acting ability. Momentarily, the humor subsides and the play takes a sad turn. It is tender moment.
Ludwig, as Lawrence, has more freedom, and she uses it with an easy assurance. Gertie, as Coward affectionately called her, is not now a known commodity. Ludwig gives her a slightly bigger-than-life presence, through a voice that can growl or purr or sputter or snap out a line with comic precision. Her archly controlled enunciation with its popping T's and D's that sound like T's is a riot.
Her movements are equally skillful, ranging from sexy posturing in torch songs like "Parisian Pierot" to wacky -- and wildly energetic -- song-and-dance antics in the vaudevillian numbers. Her hands alone have their own repertory -- her fingers even. Her mouth can be pert, coy or agape in campy exuberance, her eyes always on the move.
The play has Coward telling the story of his enduring love between himself and Lawrence -- a love that was consummated in every way but sexually. As Coward says, "I adore women except in what is known as 'that way.' " The tale begins with the day they first meet as children, moves through the years when Lawrence was something of a muse for Coward and his favorite performer, to Lawrence's death in 1952. The pair, for all their closeness, only performed twice together, in "Private Lives" and "Tonight at 8:30." Both figure prominently in "If Love Were All."
The musical numbers are priceless. Among the ballads are the opener "Someday I'll Find You," "I'll Follow My Secret Heart" (given a melting beauty by Ludwig) and of course "If Love Were All." For those yearning for Coward-inspired nonsense look to "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington," a song in which the singer's pleas become progressively more aggressive. Riggs adeptly lets out the anger in stages until it breaks free in the final stanza when Mrs. Worthington is told that her daughter is a "vile girl" and "uglier than mortal sin." Riggs also does a splendid rendition of that Coward favorite "Mad Dogs and Englishmen."
Riggs' voice, a steady instrument with barely a tremor, works marvelously with Ludwig's warbling mezzo. Ludwig's expressive vibrato adds an extra emotional turn while Riggs keeps things on track. Together they work wonders. Their ballads are touching and vivid and their comic numbers are quick, sharp and precise.
And as amazing, their harmonizing is able to re-create the sweet and slightly maudlin temper of Coward's time without so much as a passing nod to contemporary music. The Coward-like lilt of Theresa E. Quinn's piano, supported by Dave Siegfried's straight-forward bass, help immensely in this quest to capture a time past in music. All is done before an elegantly reserved art deco set by Chris Schenk that admirably avoids the excessive curlicues and comically jaunty trim that often accompanies plays of the era.
Jeffry Denman's direction finds the right pace throughout. His choreography adds much to the Coward ambience by means of well-placed slow dances and much to audience amusement in the fast, comic routines.
It is a sweet production, balanced, free of affectation and, thanks to two terrific performers, both hilarious and emotionally engaging.
IF LOVE WERE ALL
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
WHAT:"If Love Were All"
WHEN: Through Oct. 16
WHERE: MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst
TICKETS: $28 to $32; discounts available