If you ask me…
By Tom Holehan
A COLE PORTER REVUE IN WESTPORT
The irresistible and irrepressible words and music of the legendary Cole Porter are showcased in “Hot ‘n Cole”, a lively song and dance revue currently on stage at the Westport Country Playhouse. This is a slickly packaged entertainment geared for the summer crowds and a nifty way to beat the heat.
Shonn Wiley and Andrea Dora.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Subtitled “A Cole Porter Celebration”, “Hot ‘n Cole” is devised by David Armstrong, Mark Waldrop and Bruce W. Coyle with musical arrangements by Mr. Coyle. Under the assured direction of James Naughton – a class-act singer/actor who has performed in more than his share of cabaret revues – “Hot ‘n Cole” is packed with classic Porter standards like “Anything Goes”, “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, “Take Me Back to Manhattan”, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “You’re the Top”. Naughton has assembled a mostly balanced ensemble of three men and three women to bring these and dozens of other songs to life under the musical direction of Mark Berman and choreographer Lisa Shriver.
The company – Whitney Bashor, Donna Lynne Champlin, Lewis Cleale, Andrea Dora, Peter Reardon and Shonn Wiley – are all able performers, and some more than that (the men seem to have the edge here and Wiley is obviously the most experienced dancer). The best numbers, however, are when all six are singing strongly together in blended, thrilling harmony. There is no better evidence of this than in the group’s rendition of “In the Still of the Night” which had a haunting and hushed quality that riveted the audience from start to finish. Performances of “Now You Has Jazz”, “Just One of Those Things”, “Too Darn Hot” and “Everytime We Say Goodbye” also show the complete company at its very best.
Still, the final analysis here is less than thrilling. Why doesn’t it all seem like more fun? While the performers seem to enjoy working together, it still looks a lot like work. We’re seeing the company sweat – especially in the first act – and the magical bliss of Porter’s music and lyrics sometimes gets lost in all the effort. There’s a forced jocularity among the ensemble that, perhaps, will dissipate with more performances but as it stands now, the revue has a bland, homogenized feeling. I never felt truly engaged but, to be fair, this seemed to be a minority opinion on opening night.
To Naughton’s credit he has resisted the tendency to fuss with Porter’s verbal gold and there is refreshing clarity of diction by all the performers. One must appreciate any director who refuses to “improve” on Porter by making it more “relevant” with off-the-wall interpretations -- which a more insecure artist might have done. Instead this rendering is straight-forward and relatively easy to take.
Laurie Churba Kohn’s contemporary costumes are stylish though one wishes the cast would have had a change of clothes for the second act. Hugh Landwehr’s Manhattan backdrop to his posh cabaret setting is striking and Clifton Taylor’s lighting sets an appropriate mood for each successive song. All told, I suppose one could do worse on a muggy summer night than hearing some great Cole Porter music in air-conditioned comfort.
“Hot ‘n Cole” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through June 28. For further information and ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or online at www.westportplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.