REVIEW: Singers bring classic Cole Porter tunes to life as James Rocco narrates the composer’s biography.
While rightly praised for his style and sophistication, Cole Porter’s compositions have a depth of feeling and meaning that is apparent in the appreciation of his genius that is now on stage at St. Paul’s Ordway Center.
The show, which opened over the weekend, is part of artistic director James Rocco’s songbook series on Broadway composers. It is presented in the McKnight Theatre as sort of an informal, slightly academic cabaret.
While arranger Raymond Berg plays the piano in the loosely scripted show, host Rocco sits, or leans, on a high stool. He reads biographical info on the subject from visible pages — he would do well to be off-book — sharing interesting anecdotes about Porter, an only child born into a wealthy family in Peru, Indiana.
Rocco tells us about his college years (at Yale, Porter wrote songs that are still sung for spirit days and was a founder of the Whiffenpoofs singing group).
Porter had grit. While his first Broadway show, a comic operetta named “See America First,” was a flop that closed in two weeks, he didn’t give up. He would come back to write such classics as “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Can-Can,” and “Anything Goes,” whose Broadway tour stops at the Ordway in two weeks.
And we hear about the complexity of Porter’s sybaritic lifestyle as well as the tragedies that befell him. Porter was gay, but he had a long show marriage to wealthy Kentucky divorcée Linda Lee Thomas. He had a riding accident that resulted in the loss of the use of his legs for the last 27 years of his life.
The biographical snippets are interspersed between numbers delivered by a capable ensemble of singers.
Singers Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Gary Briggle provide a highlight. The two are well-paired on “So in Love,” with beautiful voices and good chemistry. Their duet ends with the pair facing each other then leaning in, ever so slowly, as if to kiss. It has spark.
Briggle, who injects character and wit in “Miss Otis Regrets,” struggled with vocal problems at the performance that I saw. His voice wasn’t always there, but he compensated with his charm.
Singer Regina Marie Williams brings out some dolorous colors in “Love for Sale,” re-arranged by Berg to have a slower, more soulful tempo. Williams injects jazzy pizzazz in a number of Porter standards that have been interpreted by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney.
For vocal sheer power, one has to admire Kersten Rodau. She shows off her prowess on “Blow Gabriel, Blow,” which she begins in the audience and sells all the way.
The Porter evening, the last regularly scheduled show in the McKnight Theatre before it is demolished to make way for a new concert hall, also featured the sweet voices of Joshua James Campbell and Kirby Trymucha-Duresky.
They, and Rocco, who sang as well, provide an entertaining appreciation of an artist whose works continues to be entertaining and meaningful.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390