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Theatre in Review: Love, Linda (York Theatre Company)

Stevie Holland. Photo: Carol Rosegg

What to say about the marriage of Cole and Linda Porter? It was just one of those things. An alliance that lasted a lifetime, it was nevertheless a cocktail of swanky good times and discreetly tended heartbreak. A true Southern belle -- a descendant of the Virginia Lees -- she had had marriage, thank you, when at a party she ran into a young man named Cole Porter. As recounted in Love, Linda, a one-person musical memoir, she mistook him for a hired musician and tried to hire him for an affair of her own. When he explained that he was the scion of a well-off family from Peru, Indiana and a songwriter, she married him.

Marriages like the Porters' were once rather common among their set; they may still be. Linda had taken a lifetime's worth of abuse from her first husband, described witheringly in Love, Linda as "the first American to kill someone in a car accident," so it apparently mattered little to her -- at least, initially -- that her new husband was sexually active with other men. And for a long time -- in the early '20s, as they swanned around Europe with the smart set, where fashionably dressed women were described as looking "Linda Porterish," and later, when they ruled over Broadway and New York society -- there was precious little to complain about. But marriages tend to be all-or-nothing propositions, and, as time wore on, the limits on their relationship began to chafe, especially in California, where Linda, eight years older than Cole, found herself unable to compete with a legion of Hollywood pretty boys. And when trouble came calling, in the form of a terrible accident for him and crippling illness for her, they needed all the fortitude they could get.

More of a high-concept cabaret act than a full-blown musical, Love, Linda is nevertheless a touching account of a couple who played by their own rules and made it to the finish line, although not without considerable pain. Stevie Holland, working with Gary William Friedman, has assembled a once-over-lightly account that contains a number of evocative details. Linda describes their European high life with glee, pausing only to comment, "I never expected him to fall in love," reading from a love letter Cole wrote to a member of Serge Diaghilev's troupe. Later, lured to Broadway by Irving Berlin, she revels in the nonstop party of their life together, mixing show folk with slumming socialites. But Hollywood comes calling, and Linda, getting older and not feeling as well as she once did, is incensed at Cole's new lack of discretion in affairs of the heart. She flees to Europe, unhappy and alone, returning when he is crushed in a horseback riding accident, leaving him crippled for life.

By this point, Linda is starting to feel the effects of emphysema -- in an especially telling moment, she looks back, with regret, on the silver cigarette cases she preferred to give as opening night presents --and Cole is no longer the critics' darling. Several dark years unfold, broken by the triumph that was Kiss Me, Kate in 1948. The future would hold more hits, but Linda, lamenting the "pair of broken Faberge eggs that we had become," notes that their lives had become sadly curtailed. The show ends with an account of the 1946 film biography Night and Day, a ridiculous portrait of a marriage that the Porters nevertheless adored for the way in which all their blemishes were airbrushed out.

Holland, looking great in a chic black gown by Pamela Dennis, is an affable hostess, capturing the frivolity and bravery that marked Linda's life. As a singer, her phrasing and diction are impeccable; she handles Porter's songs like the Cartier items they are. Best of all, she captures the terrible yearning at the heart of ballads like "So in Love." Although she doesn't stray too far from the greatest-hits list, there are a few unfamiliar items, including "Ours," a witty ballad used to describe the marriage in its heyday; "The Scampi," a mildly risqué item that sounds like an alternative version of "The Tale of the Oyster;" and "There's a Hollywood That's Good," cut from Silk Stockings. Some of the most interesting moments feature Holland offering counterintuitive interpretations of classics. "Love for Sale," an account of a prostitute's life, becomes a ballad of marital disaffection. "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" is not a saucy sex romp, but a statement of devotion in times of trouble. "Wunderbar," a spoof of operetta ballads, gets much more tender treatment.

The production clearly benefits from the handling of director Richard Maltby, Jr., as well as James Morgan's set, which frames the stage in an impression of Manhattan skyscrapers lit up at night. Everything else, including Graham Kindred's lighting and Carl Casella's extremely discreet sound design, is equally fine.

"A marriage is not a can of soup," Linda protests, early on. Indeed, not; hers was more like a champagne cocktail, with an extra dose of bitters. Love, Linda offers a portrait of that marriage that feels honest and is blessedly without mawkishness or self-pity. Defiant to the end, she sings "I'm Throwing a Ball Tonight;" Love, Linda is more an intimate soiree, one that will gratify fans of Porter -- and who isn't? --David Barbour

(13 December 2013)

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