Imagine this: an invitation to Cole Porter's Paris apartment in the roaring '20s. The city is as fabulous as it will ever be, a veritable cocktail of music, poets, dancers and American celebrities. That's the intriguing setting for Red, Hot, and Cole! by Madison Theatre Guild. The production debuted at the Bartell on Jan. 10 and runs through Jan. 25.
This show is filled with characters that would make anyone's dinner-party list. Cole Porter, of course, but also Moss Hart, Hedda Hopper, Noël Coward and the one and only Ethel Merman. With big characters like that, the audience expects big performances. And Madison is filled with big voices (as witnessed in Four Seasons Theatre's powerful production of Les Miserables last spring).
Unfortunately, I found myself wondering, "Where are those people, and why aren't they in this show?" Many of the vocal performances were strained. Christopher Younggren, who played Porter, has a pleasing enough voice, but his physical presence lent itself more to a James Cagney mobster than the effete, urbane composer.
Luckily, the true star of the show isn't Porter himself, but his music. As music director Erin Crabb, who played piano beautifully throughout the show, pointed out, "There comes a time in the life of every rehearsal process when the show becomes, by virtue of sheer repetition, a blur of tedium. Not so this time around." I absolutely agree. One of the true pleasures of Red, Hot, and Cole! is sitting back and marveling at the string of hits Porter wrote. "I Love Paris," "Anything Goes," "Let's Misbehave" and "Miss Otis Regrets" are just some of the recognizable tunes, although there are many more gems audiences may not identify as Porter works.
Porter's virtuosity was rivaled only by his output. But while the show is heavy on music, it's thin on story. Red, Hot, and Cole! is a musical revue strung together by small vignettes from Porter's life. The one in-depth exception is his relationship with wife, Linda, who is portrayed well by Rachel Eve Holmes. In Porter's marriage to Linda, we glimpse the complex gay identity of the past. Porter's many affairs were an open secret to his circle of friends and to Linda, who ultimately lost patience for his philandering.
All in all, Red, Hot, and Cole! has elements that are likely to draw you in, even if you find the vocals disappointing. There's a fun tap-dance number in the middle of act one, and the production is set in an engaging time and place. I spent my time listening intensely, focusing on the tunes. Porter was the obvious progenitor of the clever, lyric-twisting composer Stephen Sondheim, and as with Sondheim, you'll want to hear every word of Porter's pieces. If for no other reason than to submerse yourself in these amazing songs, Red, Hot, and Cole! is worth a night at the Bartell.