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Theatre in Review: The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter

Lee Roy Reams. Photo: Ben Strothmann.

For the second offering of its three-part Cole Porter celebration, the folks at York Theatre Company have uncorked a fresh magnum of wit and cockeyed wisdom. This revue, originally assembled by the producer Ben Bagley in 1965, could also be termed Porter 202, an advanced course of study that uses as its syllabus a lineup of lesser-known items from the master Broadway songwriter's catalogue, all of which provide a steady stream of delight.

Porter's early career was marked by such fast-folding calamities as See America First and Hitchy-Koo of 1919 -- what a rich, rare experience that must have been -- but even at this early stage, his talent was fully formed. Exhibit A is "I've Got a Shooting Box in Scotland," from See America First, which muses on collectors who assemble "Jacobean soup tureens/early types of limousines" and "locks of Mrs. Browning's hair/photographs of Ina Claire." Already, he was turning out lyrics good enough to be called light verse; as the revue's playlist reveals, his melodic gifts were also prodigious, applied equally to ballads like "At Long Last Love," uptempo tunes like "Let's Fly Away," and comedy numbers like "Well, Did You Evah?"

The cast of four offers a remarkably polished performance, given the miniscule rehearsal time -- this is part of the Musicals in Mufti concert-staging series -- with each member finding plenty of material that plays to his or her strengths. Danny Gardner's crystalline diction makes him a valuable contributor to tongue-twisters like "I've Got a Shooting Box in Scotland"; he also livens up his numbers with distinctive tap moves, turning a music stand into a dance partner in "I've Got You On My Mind" and adding to the rat-a-tat rhythm of "Red, Hot, and Blue!" The slinky, rubber-faced Lauren Molina, peering through a lorgnette, lists the honor roll of celebrities taking up pitchforks in "Farming" and, weary of the glamour of it all, amusingly wails the upper-crust lament "Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor)." She also makes the most of the thoughtful, melancholy "I Loved Him (But He Didn't Love Me)," a reverse-engineered torch song in which the singer discovers that her passion lasts only as long as her beloved's indifference. Diane Phelan wittily partners with Gardner to delicately trip through the garden of double-entendres known as "But in the Morning, No!," here staged as the reluctant wooing of two hungover worldlings; she also delivers an exultant version of "I Happen to Like New York," perhaps the most ardent love song Porter ever wrote.

Presiding over it all is Lee Roy Reams, an owlish, avuncular presence acting as the evening's principal diseur, delivering Bagley's ultra-arch narration and handling with Euclidian precision the lyrics of "I'm a Gigolo" ("Go to one of those night club places/And you'll find me stretching my braces/Pushing ladies with lifted faces 'round the floor") and "Thank You So Much, Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby," the memoir of a dreadful country house weekend that included "guests so amusing and mentally bracing/Who talked about racing and racing and racing." He also provides a pretty spot-on imitation of Sophie Tucker -- spicy comments and all -- for the first-act finale, "Tomorrow," from the Tucker vehicle Leave It to Me!

It's a nonstop parade of impudent wit, much of it remarkably risqué even today, from "Leader of a Big Time Band" ("When Goodman, champ of champs/Goes blowin' blue/Rum-ridden debutramps/Nearly come to") to "Most Gentleman Don't Like Love" ("As Madame Sappho in a sonnet said/A slap and tickle/Are all that the fickle/Male ever has in his head") to "Farming" ("Now don't inquire why Georgie Raft's/handsome cow has never calfed/Georgie's bull is beautiful but he's gay!"). It's a marriage of verbal and musical felicity that comes around about as often as Halley's Comet.

Pamela Hunt's staging has plenty of fizz -- ensuring that everyone onstage seems to be having a ball -- aided by Trent Kidd's lively musical staging. Mufti productions get the most basic of designs, but Joyce Liao's lighting has good, clean lines and Jamie Goodwin's projections deliver evocative images of Porter, sheet music, show posters, grand mansions, and New York skylines, among many others.

The narration rather pointedly contrasts Porter's lighthearted wit with the tumult of the decades when he ruled Broadway -- years marked by depression and war -- suggesting that he lived on a mental ninetieth floor of his own. On the contrary, Decline and Fall makes an excellent case for him as a social satirist, one who accurately nailed the grand dames, heirs, playboys, fortune hunters, adventuresses, and bizarre celebrities who made up his social circle. When the world is going mad all about one, a certain kind of flippancy may be its own best defense. Where is he when we need him? --David Barbour

(16 October 2019)

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