Who can blame Judy Brown for getting a kick out of Cole Porter? The adept composer and lyricist provided America with some of its most enduring musical standards. As the force behind the new musical revue at the York Theatre Company, Porterphiles, she wanted to demonstrate her interest in the totality of Porter's work, not just the songs from his most famous shows like Anything Goes or Kiss Me, Kate.
Brown has assembled 31 of Porter's unfamiliar (and unpublished) songs into the show, under the direction of James Morgan. She provides the musical direction, arrangements, and even the accompaniment for the three singers - Lynn Halliday, Ricky Russell, and Stephen Zinnato - who will present these songs to us. Brown should be commended in creating one of the "don't miss" events of the season: If you have a real interest in musical theatre or Cole Porter, you should not miss Porterphiles. Opportunities like this one don't come along every day.
But while Porterphiles is worthy in conception, most of the songs bear the uncomfortable responsibility of proving why they were lost or never published in the first place. This is not to say that the songs are bad, for none of them are. But very few of the numbers in Porterphiles display the verve that characterizes Porter at his best. Presenting them all back-to-back with no dialogue and little but the simplest and most occasional of dramatic through-lines robs these songs of whatever punch they might have otherwise had in this format. Porterphiles possesses the informality of a group of friends gathering around a cocktail party's piano to sing their favorites, but as a theatrical evening, it's more than a little lacking.
This is due, in no small part, to the performers. They sing well (though each - particularly Halliday - has moments of difficulty projecting over the piano), but none is able to consistently build his or her numbers into something really special. The performers visibly reflect the disconnect and discomfort the songs seem to display in this format, so even when they find songs they can really sink their teeth into - the spicy group number "Tequila," cut from Mexican Hayride, or "Si Vous Aimez Les Poitrines" from Nymph Errant - something is amiss. One cannot help but be aware that these performers lack the charisma and ease with the material that might take Porterphiles to that next level of musical or theatrical excitement.
Yet, there are gems to be found here - the comic duet "That's Why I Love You" (cut from Fifty Million Frenchmen), sung by Halliday Russell, hilariously embraces the joy of the peccadilloes that keep one's lover out of a stranger's arms, while the last number of the evening "Through Thick And Thin" (from the film Something to Shout About) is a bouncy and stirring ode to friendship performed so well here by the three singers, that the song seems like it should have become a standard.
Not every song in Porterphiles receives such a strong treatment, which is unfortunate if understandable given the circumstances. But more of a dramatic hook, something for the audience and performers to latch onto in the presentation of these songs would help Porterphiles be as exciting and enlightening as it inspires to be. As a collection of Porter's lesser-known - and, frankly, lesser - songs, the show is fine enough, and true porterphiles who can relate to Brown's desire to put the evening together, will probably be out of this world with joy. Those not quite so in love with Porter will probably have a harder time.
York Theatre Company