BWW Reviews: COLE - A Delightful, Delicious End to a De-Lovely Season at Totem Pole Playhouse
Totem Pole Playhouse closes its 2012 season with COLE, "an Entertainment based on the words and music of Cole Porter." The show is a somewhat shortened adaptation of The Mermaid Theatre's arrangement by Benny Green and Alan Strachan, and is a fast-paced revue directed by Ray Ficca with a highly talented ensemble cast that gives the audience forty of Porter's best-known songs in an evening of song, dance, and some pronounced physical comedy.
Perhaps the real star of this show is the set by James Fouchard, a Jazz-Age Art Deco nightclub set up in stacked steps of varying heights, surmounted by a piano presided over by musical director Darren Server. It places Server at the top and center of the stage, giving him the attention he richly deserves, especially during the piano solo of "Begin the Beguine" that opens the second act. It, and the small bar placed just off of stage left, governed by one of Totem Pole's great institutions, Wil Love, set the atmosphere and the action of the entire revue.
There is no real plot to the show, but the songs are performed in chronological order from Porter's earliest works through Kiss Me, Kate. In between songs, the cast presents information about Porter's life that introduces the following numbers. The cast of eight includes Totem Pole and Baltimore-area theatre veteran Wil Love, Catherine Blaine, William Diggle, Liz Dutton, Rebecca Gibel, Helen Hayes award-winner JJ Kaczynski, Ethan J. Goldbach, Martina Vidmar, and, in a special appearance with Kaczynski, director Ray Ficca. Love sings little, but effectively steals the show as the bartender, whose business during and between songs adds immensely to the richness of the staging, especially during Blaine's amusingly declaimed "Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please," one of my favorite Porter numbers. Blaine's character in the show is a comic grande dame whose songs reflect a combination of world-weariness and long-suffering dignity; her pairing with Love at the bar is the stuff of 30's and 40's movie comedies.
Much of the other comedy comes from Diggle, whose "I'm a Gigolo" delighted the audience, and whose "Be a Clown" with Vidmar, while not truly recalling Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, did full credit to the red-nose brigade of the world. As a member of the male quartet and male trio, Diggle's voice stands out strongly and well. His dancing, while not as fluid as Kaczynski's and Goldbach's in "Please Don't Monkey With Broadway," adds considerably to the pleasure of the show. That vocal ensemble, with Server singing as well on "When the Summer Moon Comes 'Long," could easily entertain the audience for an entire evening performing a cappella.
Gibel performs two of the standout solo numbers of the show. "Love For Sale" can be bold and brassy, or, equally effectively, softer and wistful, depending on the performer; Gibel's more wistful delivery evokes the same longing as did her "I Love Paris."
Goldbach and Dutton make a charming pair in the second half of the show, especially during "Let's Misbehave." Goldbach's costume shift from knickered newsboy to dinner-jacketed date between acts is the revelation of the evening, as the change of outfit visibly appears to change his age by a good decade. Dutton's energy is evident as she performs, and adds much to the Women's Ensemble performances, especially in the second half. She is an Actors Equity membership candidate, and although not as experienced as many of the veteran actors in the cast, holds her own.
The outstanding pairing may be Vidmar and Kaczynski. Vocally, Vidmar has the breathy quality of a younger Bernadette Peters when she sings, and she and Kaczynski have very evident chemistry; it was no surprise to discover that they have worked together before, in "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum" in Washington. They are comically delightful during "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "You've Got That Thing". Vidmar also stands out during "The Lost Liberty Blues" and "Just One of Those Things". Kaczynski's physicality and timing is reminiscent of Alec Baldwin's comedy, and is equally illustrated in his pairing with Ficca, noted earlier. Kaczynski and Ficca nearly bring down the house during Ficca's one performance in "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," although it is illustrative of our times that much of the audience when I attended did not get some of the jokes in the song because of their not knowing titles of Shakespeare's plays. (When you go, remember "Coriolanus". You'll laugh harder, trust me.)
The music is delightful – it must be, for it's Cole Porter, after all – and is as familiar as breathing; as Vidmar says, "Anyone's going to know these songs – they're part of the fabric of our lives." My one great complaint about the music in the show? Only the first line or two of Porter's charming "I Happen to Like New York" is sung, perhaps to avoid offense to Hackensack, which is a shame as Vidmar is clearly equal to the task of showing off the bell-like character of the song. My greater complaint is about the book, the life story of Porter that is woven into the show – or that isn't in it. That Porter was gay is not precisely news, and was not news during his lifetime, and the knowledge of that fact does affect one's understanding of his life and of his lyrics, in which many of his apparent double-entendres were deliberate and often have even more than two meanings. However, that flaw in the writing has no bearing on the presentation of the revue, and this version of it is exactly the sort of fare that a late-summer audience cannot help but appreciate.
COLE is a rousing close to the Totem Pole season and should leave you walking out the doors still humming songs you'd either forgotten or never quite realized you knew. Ficca, Server, the cast, and the set crew justly can be proud of a show that, in the words of a different lyricist writing of the same Jazz Age, will "razzle-dazzle 'em" for the evening.
COLE is on stage now through August 26 at Totem Pole Playhouse in Caledonia State Park. To purchase tickets, call the Totem Pole box office at 888-805-7056 or order online at www.totempoleplayhouse.org.
Photo Credit: Totem Pole Playhouse