Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter

I bought my first Ben Bagley record, Irving Berlin Revisited, for 69 cents at a flea market in New Jersey a million years ago. Albums those days cost around four dollars, so it was quite a bargain, and it introduced me to Blossom Dearie, Bobby Short, and Bagley's unusual world view (world equaling the American songbook in this case). During his career, Bagley also revisited Oscar Hammerstein, Alan Jay Lerner, Arthur Schwartz, Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen, Kurt Weill, Rodgers and Hart, and many others. And he featured performers similarly fabulous: Dearie, Short, Ann Hampton Callaway, Margaret Whiting, Barbara Cook, Nell Carter, Chita Rivera, Kaye Ballard, Karen Morrow, and, again, many others. 

Lee Roy Reams, Diane Phelan, Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina
Photo: Ben Strothmann
Bagley also produced revues. One of them, The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter, was perhaps the first to focus on one writer. (According to Wikipedia, Variety wrote that the show "helped pave the way for later Broadway revues like Ain't Misbehavin' and Sophisticated Ladies which surveyed the work of a single composer.")

The wonderful York Theatre Company has revived The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter as part of its Mufti series, and it's a treat. 

Lauren Molina
Photo: Ben Strothmann
I have mixed feelings about revues. They can be overdirected, chirpy, and annoying. Each performer gets many songs to sing, so a mediocre singer can really hurt the evening. Some songwriters' songs start to sound repetitious when surveyed in this way.

The Decline and Fall ... Cole Porter has none of these problems. Pamela Hunt's direction is imaginative and spirited. Eric Svejcar's music direction is similarly lovely, and his piano playing is wonderful. Choreographer Trent Kidd's work, which shows a strong familiarity with old movie musicals, is witty and great fun. And the cast is strong: Lauren Molina (someone cast her in Funny Girl ASAP), charming song-and-dance man Danny Gardner, Diane Phelan, and long-time theatre veteran Lee Roy Reams.

Danny Gardner
Photo: Ben Strothmann
As for experiencing an evening of Cole Porter's work (mostly lesser known songs), I actually came out respecting Porter more than I did going in. In general, I find much of his work one-note. He establishes a joke structure and then works it to death, with no development. But the songs in The Decline and Fall ... Cole Porter cover a wide range of styles, and I liked a lot of them much more than his better known work.

A word about the Muftis: they are staged readings, but so much more than that. While the actors are more or less on book, it never gets in the way of the performances. The orchestra is one piano; I didn't put orchestra in quotes because the amazing pianists provide full-bodied musical accompaniment. 

Diane Phelan
Photo: Ben Strothmann
And the performers are not miked! Listening to superb singers unplugged is a delight and a luxury. (It's also nice that the singers don't have mikes hanging out of their hairlines.)

Lee Roy Reams
Photo: Ben Strothmann
On top of all of this, the shows are inexpensive, and matinees are followed by talkbacks that are unusually entertaining. In brief, sometimes the talkers-back dish. At one talkback years ago, the widow of the composer spoke of how glad she was when the original producer died. At this past Sunday's talkback, Reams told a story about Bagley that was, shall we say, risqué, and damned funny. Reams said that the tale was "not to leave this room," and I will honor his request. (Anyway, I couldn't do it justice.) But you do wish you were there.

The Decline and Fall ... Cole Porter runs through October 20th. Catch it if you can.

Wendy Caster
(fifth row, press ticket)

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