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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Red, Hot & Cole
A Swellegant Show at CLO

Also see David's review of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Red, Hot & Cole
Chris Maltby as Cole Porter
The narrative concept may be wobbly in the Cole Porter songbook revue Red, Hot & Cole, but thanks to a cascading flow of Porter's words and music, delicious and stylish direction by Claudia Zahn, and a game and gifted cast, the show is grand enough entertainment to qualify it as the best show from the venerable Civic Light Opera company in many moons.

There are about as many Porter revues out there as there are of his modern day equivalent Stephen Sondheim, but Red, Hot & Cole owes far more to Broadway's old King Cole than it does to the so-called book by James Bianchi, Muriel McAuley and Randy Strawderman, which basically sets Porter's life in a swanky nightclub as a parade of his pals reminisce with him about his life. Yes, it does sound a bit like what goes on in the recent, largely reviled Porter biopic Delovely, yet in director Zahn's loving hands, ably abetted by musical director Mark Rabe and choreographer Sam Petit, the script's weaknesses are minimized and the marvelous music is front and center. With a few more performances under the cast's belt to tighten pacing and strengthen the band's comfort level with the avalanche of music they have to play, this show will easily become Seattle's hot ticket of early 2005.

It doesn't hurt at all that Zahn found a well nigh ideal Cole in actor/singer Chris Maltby. Looking much more like Porter than Kevin Kline ever could have hoped to, Maltby is the sophisticated heartbeat, beat, beat of the tom-tom that anchors the show. Despite frequent references to the real Porter's voice, Maltby's is most pleasing, and his way with a lyric shines, whether tossing off a ribald "I'm A Gigolo" early on, or poignantly interpreting his eleven o'clock number, "Wouldn't It Be Fun?"

Maltby, however, gets a real run for his money from the rest of the cast. Gail Hebert is alternately riotous and rather touchingly pathetic as the celebrated hostess (and freeloader) Elsa Maxwell, and her rendition of "The Physician" is just what the doctor ordered. Megan Chenovick as Porter's wife Linda, manages far better than Ashley Judd in Delovely to overcome the fact that she is years too young for the role (the real Linda Porter being quite a few years older than Cole). Chenovick's acting makes it clear that Linda's devotion to Cole was at the cost of a satisfying physical relationship, and her light soprano is an asset on "I Love Paris," "In the Still of the Night" and during ensemble numbers. Eric Polani Jensen is rousingly engaging as Porter's old Yale pal Monty Wooley, whether wryly informing us that "Miss Otis Regrets" or leading a bawdy all-male version of "Most Gentleman Don't Like Love" with bump and grind abandon. Charissa Bertels snappily essays a lot of great material as Ethel Merman and becomes more the Merm as the evening goes on. Sabrina Prada is asked to impersonate Dorothy Parker, Hedda Hopper and librettist Bella Spewack, with the last named being her most amusing characterization, while her distinctive voice and delivery get their shining moment with "Just One of Those Things."

Tanesha Ross as Porter's Parisian chanteuse pal Bricktop struts and sashays successfully through "I'm In Love Again" and "Ca C'est L'amour." Casey Craig offers up stellar vocals of the cut Can-Can number "Who Said Gay Paree?" and the haunting, rarely performed "Wake Up & Dream," and is also the production's standout dancer. James Scheder and Natalie Backman also display fancy footwork. Doug Knoop, saddled with the unenviable task of having little in the way of solo material and having to play four characters (including both Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman), is nonetheless droll and engaging. Even musical director Rabe gets a chance to interpret (most adroitly) Noel Coward's rewritten lyric of "Let's Do It," and the full cast rendition of "Every Time We Say Goodbye" could make the hardest heart turn to Jello.

Director Zahn, set designer Jennifer Zeyl, and lighting designer Richard Schaefer make the absolute most of the challenges they must have faced doing the show in the venerable old Magnuson Park Recreation Center Theater that CLO now calls home, capturing and conveying the intimacy of seeing the show in a more intimate venue. Despite a few squawks, the sound design by Luke Kehrwald was above par and kept the audience from losing many of Porter's grand lyrics. About those lyrics - musical director Rave makes sure his cast doesn't take them for granted, as the enunciation in this show is well above average, as is the musical support of Rabe leading a trio at the piano.

As musically rich as Red, Hot & Cole is, with many songs at least touched on in medley form, I was struck by how many of the master's great tunes, familiar and rare alike, aren't even a part of this show. What a legacy he left us, and what a swell party this show is!

Red, Hot & Cole runs through Feb 13, 2005 at Magnuson Park Recreation Theatre Center, 7400 Sand Point Way N.E. For reservations or other information call (206) 363-2809 or visit CLO online at www.clo-musicaltheatre.org.



- David-Edward Hughes



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