Oh, I suppose it's technically true that the show is really about Porter's wife, Linda. But as Stevie Holland has written (with Gary William Friedman) and plays her, Linda exists exclusively as an afterthought-appendage of her über-famous husband. And because Holland stalks the stage in a slinky black dress (designed by Pamela Dennis), and sings each of 20 Porter songs in soupy, jazzy arrangements (by Friedman) that don't exactly evoke the theatre for which Porter was actually acclaimed, you don’t get the impression that the woman onstage is who she purports to be.
You're instead in the presence of an experienced chanteuse, rather than a chameleonic actress or bewitchingly clever playwright. Though Holland adopts an on-again-off-again Southern twang appropriate for playing the Kentucky native who became the first lady of musical-theatre high society, she only comes alive when she's wrapping her lips around the suite of standards that comprise the only chunks of this 75-minute show that actually matter.
Holland infuses the likes of "So In Love," "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "Night and Day," “When a Woman’s In Love,” and many more with a world-weary smokiness that appropriately highlights Linda's nicotine-fueled existence and latent unhappiness at constantly being the other woman in her own marriage. The song choices range from the blandly obvious (“I Love Paris” for their years in France) to the predictably ironic (“Let’s Be Buddies” when musing, as she does frequently, on the limits Porter’s sexuality imposed), but suffice as wispy reflections on a difficult man and his enduring work.
Accomplished as her singing might be, however, Holland doesn’t seem to be playing a character as much as she does hawking a solo CD. She sweeps about the stage grandly, delivering grinning nods and embracing arm gestures to the audience, and delivers built-in reprises with a natural affinity for the piano-bar form. But as far as explaining, or even just laying emotionally bare, this complicated, conflicted woman, Holland doesn't even try.
Not that she has much to work with. The book contains no fresh insights into Porter and no insights at all into Linda. From marital problems to emphysema to the horseback riding accident that crushed Porter’s legs and reunited him with an at-the-time estranged Linda, this evening about one woman in a stand-by-your-man marriage that didn’t quite work out as its participants planned is distinguished from all the others out there by only two things: the name-dropping and the songs. And the longer it goes on, the clearer it becomes that Holland is really just there to sing, and you’re really just there to listen.
What director Richard Maltby, Jr., is supposed to bring to this party is not quite explained. His staging, to the extent it can be called that, is unfocused and shapeless: Holland doesn’t do much but work the room, and occasionally perch on a chair and refer to an ever-lit portrait of Porter on an adjoining table. (The set, which suggests the majesty of twinkling Midtown high-rises, is by James Morgan; the lighting is by Graham Kindred.) Most of the time your attention is captured by Christopher McGovern’s three-piece band, which provides attractively melty rhythms and dry-vermouth underscoring, if without conveying any pinpointed sense of time, place, or mood (other than tipsy).
Then again, the same is essentially true of Love, Linda itself. Holland plows through it effortlessly, which is to be expected after its previous run at the Triad a few years back and subsequent tour, and of course it’s always delightful to hear Porter classics spun anew. But the show thrills at presenting a thoroughly boulevard treatment of a timelessly unconventional love affair without convincing you it’s any more relevant than garden-variety patter. The only thing that distinguishes this as theatre, rather than the cabaret it much more closely resembles, is the absence of a two-drink minimum.
Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter