Hot 'n Cole
By Geary Danihy

There’s a lot of audience toe-tapping and humming-along going on at the Westport Country Playhouse right now, and that ‘s because Hot ‘n Cole – A Cole Porter Celebration is on stage.

If you are of an age, and even if you’re not, hearing “Anything Goes,” “It’s De-Lovely” and “I Get a Kick Out of You,” as well as 40 or so other Porter songs presented by six extremely talented actors, has to make for an enjoyable evening.

Is it perfect? Well, no, but what is?


From left, standing, Shonn Wiley, Lewis Cleale, Donna Lynne Champlin, Peter Reardon, Andrea Dora; seated, Whitney Bashor.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Hot ‘n Cole is basically a cabaret revue and would work better in a more intimate setting, mainly because, as with most revues, there’s no storyline, so whatever’s “happening” from song to song has to be generated by subtle interaction amongst the actors – gestures, looks, occasional asides. In a theater the size of the Playhouse – not mammoth but large enough – a lot of this interaction gets lost.

The revue “style” also seems to, inevitably, call for a certain amount of false camaraderie – gestures (finger pointing, fist-banging, nods and shoulder shakes) that say to the audience: “We are an ensemble and are having a hell of a time putting on this show for you and, by the way, we’re way cool.”

The scenic set-up, designed by Hugh Landwehr, is for sophisticated party in a Manhattan penthouse, complete with large windows that reveal a nighttime skyline of the Big Apple. The invitees are six chic partygoers who interact around two pianos. Director James Naughton gives us a lot of entrances and exits, some dramatic silhouetting (compliments of lighting designer Clifton Taylor) and a bit too much posing and positioning for effect, but again, that’s the nature of a revue. If you like the format, you won’t be offended.

There is one sour note to all of this, and that’s with the choreography, and it really has nothing to do with the steps and routines, thought they are very basic. A Cole Porter song reeks of sophistication – light, somewhat acerbic, witty and oh so elegant – and yet the three male actors seem to be shod in brogues. They pound the stage in a pachydermic fashion as if they are dancing in some Germanic-Idol contest. Where “glide’ would be more appropriate we are presented with “stomp.” I don’t know if choreographer Lisa Shriver was told to “save the stage” from the digging, slashing effect of taps, but Cole Porter and “clunky” simply do not equate.

Yes, yes, one might carp and criticize at times, but there’s no getting around the fact that a show with such songs as “In the Still of the Night,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Easy to Love,” “Night and Day,” “Another Openin’ of Another Show,” “Well Did Ya Evah?” and “Now You Has Jazz,” plus a humorous matching of “Don’t Fence Me In” and “I Hate Men,” has to generate a certain degree of enthusiasm, and the cast, by and large, gives these songs their due, especially when they present them in ensemble a la New York Voices or Manhattan Transfer.

Each cast member also gets to shine in solo numbers. As examples: Shonn Wiley with “I’m a Gigolo”; Lewis Cleale in a wonderful rendition of the seldom-heard “Tale of the Oyster”; Andres Dora’s “I’ve Still Got My Health,” and again with Donna Lynne Champlin in “Take Me Back to Manhattan”; Whitney Bashor’s “Big Town”; and Peter Reardon’s lovely, tender presentation of “Broth of a Boy.”

Hot ‘n Cole could have been a bit better than what it is, but what it is satisfies. No one sitting in the theater will feel cheated, because the folks up on the stage are working their derrieres off to entertain, and they succeed. A larger question arises -- that having to do with what the Playhouse wants to be, or become, and if revues such as Hot ‘n Cole move it towards that goal?

One gets the feeling that the Playhouse is still searching for an identity. It’s a difficult search: Innovative? Avant garde? Retro?

It’s also a tough call. Do you go with legit theater or crowd-pleasers? Do you take a chance or go with the tried and true?

The Playhouse is a wonderful venue. One can only hope that those in charge of its future will find the right theatrical mix, one that will both stimulate and entertain.

Hot ‘n Cole runs through Saturday, June 28. For tickets or more information call 227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

To see what other critics think of this production, or to see what is playing in theaters in Connecticut, go to www.ctcritics.com.

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