Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Red, Hot & Cole Does Not Sizzle

Also see Richard's review of Syncopation

The New Conservatory Theatre Center continues its fourth In Concert season with Red, Hot & Cole, a musical revue of songs by Cole Porter. The two act revue is a mixture of biography and songs following the fanciful life of one of the great songwriting masters of the 20th century. The revue attempts to traces Cole's career from his birth in Peru, Indiana, to his years in Paris during the first World War, his life in that city of light after the war, and his friendships with the great celebrities of the age plus the tragic riding accident that crippled him in mid-career physically but not artistically. Strangely, there is only a veiled reference to Cole having been homosexual. The show is performed by a group of eight men and women and a pianist.

Paul Araquistain, Laura LeHaff, and Shirley Smallwood
This rendition of Cole Porter's life is an offshoot of a British production I saw at the Vaudeville Theatre in London approximately 10 years ago. The production was then called A Swell Party. The crux of the revue was that Cole Porter was throwing a party in his nine-room penthouse at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Cole was played by Nickolas Grace, and some of the best West End singers like David Kernan, Martin Smith and Angela Richards were the guests. Randy Strawderman took the concept and renamed it Red, Hot & Cole. He also changed some of the songs and put it out to regional companies to present.

Red, Hot & Cole features difficult songs, and the singers must have a sense of rhythm and an idea of delivery for the master's songs. They need an air of sophistication that is sadly lacking in this production. Unfortunately, this production does not have the Cole Porter touch.

There are some highlights in the two act, two hour production. The chorus work on such Porter classics as "Friendship," "Come Along with Me" and songs from Kiss Me Kate are well done. The group works fine together in eight-part harmony. There are some very good solos, especially Robin Steeves' rendition of "The Physician" from Nymph Errant and "Just One of Those Things." The other individual performance that stands out is that of Gary Wayne Farris, who sings "Who Said Gay Paree?" and the final song "Wake Up and Dream." Both of these singers know how to sing Cole Porter; they envelop these songs with their talents.

Red, Hot & Cole starts with a very long piano overture that almost turns into an evening recital. The actors in evening attire stroll out individually and in pairs as the overture comes to an end. It is an awkward entrance, but finally Paul Araquistain enters as Cole, looking very much the part. The original idea was that Cole would come out in a wheelchair depicting a time after his tragic accident. The songwriter would get up from the chair and say, "I won't need that tonight since I am throwing a party," then sing "I'm Throwing a Ball Tonight," which is a great opening. In this production, Elsa Maxwell (Stephanie Temple) sings the song and it just does not work. She has a small but capable voice, but the clever lyrics are lost in her rendition. It would be better if Araquistain would sing the song since he has the Porter mannerisms and a fairly good set of pipes. Also, the main singers are constantly changing into celebrities such as Moss Hart, George Kaufman, Noel Coward, etc., throughout the show. They don't act like the personalities they are imitating since their conversations are very stilted and awkward.

Entrances and exits are very noisy on a wooden floor that is made up to look like marble. It looks like a free floating floor and extends part way out into the audience section. The set also includes a draped piano and a small bar full of bottles of "liquor" and "wines." The cast drinks a lot of "iced tea" during the 2 hour period.

I give George Quick (who has directed such great musicals like Passion, Chess, A New Brain and The Last Session) courage for tackling this difficult revue. However, I wish he had singers who had the air of sophistication necessary to sing Porter's classic songs.

Red Hot & Cole runs though April 13 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-861-8972.

Photo: Lois Tema

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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