Silk Stockings: Cole Porter Fights The Cold War
"I'm one of those directors from England here to help you with your material.", joked Ian Marshall Fisher before Sunday night's first performance of Lost Musicals' staged reading of Silk Stockings.
During the past sixteen years this London theatre company, under Fisher's artistic direction, has presented over seventy readings of lesser-known works by significant musical theatre artists in simply staged productions, performed in evening wear with no props or scenery and scripts in hand. Their only other appearance in New York was four years ago, with a delightful mounting of the Cole Porter/Herbert and Dorothy Fields wartime farce, Let's Face It. Let's hope we don't have to wait another four years for Fisher's company to honor us with another delicious slice of our musical theatre heritage.
Silk Stockings, premiering in 1955, was the last Broadway entry for both Cole Porter and George S. Kaufman, and although it would never be classified on the same level as Kiss Me, Kate or You Can't Take It With You, there is still a great deal of pleasure to be found in reviving the not-as-brilliant work of these two masters, just as there would be in a production of one of Shakespeare's lesser plays. (Yes, I just compared Cole Porter and George S. Kaufman to William Shakespeare. You wanna make something of it?)
In his pre-performance introduction, Fisher stressed that the goal of Lost Musicals is to present the material as it first appeared on the Broadway stage without any cuts or revisions. (My talented colleague Matthew Murray beat me by a quarter second in initiating the applause for that statement.) Musicals were significantly longer in the days before technological advances made crossover scenes (scenes played in front of the curtain to hide a set change) unnecessary, but although the three-hour long performance (including a pre-show interview with Kaufman's daughter, Anne Kaufman) revealed a script that could use a bit of trimming, experiencing the material uncut is well worth the time.
Based on Melchoir Lengyel's novel Ninotchka, which was turned into a wildly successful Greta Garbo film of the same name, Silk Stockings is set in Paris, 1955, when a Russian classical composer/conductor on tour disobeys orders to return home when the opportunity arises to have themes from his masterwork, Ode to a Tractor, used as the underscoring for a Hollywood drama based on War and Peace. Three bumbling officials are sent to bring him back with a minimal amount of adverse publicity ("We must force him of his own free will to come back."), but when the boys are seduced by the Paris nightlife, Moscow sends a no-nonsense, humorless robot of a woman to finish the job. The main love story is how the composer's American agent steps in to try and seduce her into succumbing to both his charms and to the lights of Paris. Her name is Nina, but he calls her by the affectionate Ninotchka. Meanwhile, the Hollywood starlet sent in to shoot location scenes ("My first dramatic non-swimming role.") is dissatisfied with the screenplay and has the movie changed into a musical about Napoleon's Josephine, turning the Tractor themes into pop songs.
This kind of contemporary social satire, with Communism being the butt of every joke that wasn't aimed at Hollywood, was a big hit with Eisenhower-era Broadway audiences. When a Soviet official is asked if he knew that the great Russian composer Prokofiev was dead, he innocently answers, "I didn't even know he was arrested." Another Soviet, trying to locate a higher-up, asks for a copy of Who's Still Who. With good solid laughs at the expense of someone else's government, Silk Stockings ran well over a year. Kaufman's book was a collaboration... of sorts. He began writing teamed with his wife, Leueen MacGrath, an unsuccessful playwright (more popular as an actress) whose main contribution, according to Anne Kaufman, was to help write the leading lady's role. The two were fired/quit (pick one) and replaced by producers Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin with accomplished playwright/bookwriter Abe Burrows. The three share equal billing for the book.
Cole Porter's score certainly suffers a bit when compared with his finest work. The ballads lack his signature imagery and musical sophistication. Internal rhyming like "the urge to merge with the splurge of the spring" seems awkward when compared with the magic of "flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do." When Ninotchka eventually falls for the American, and to the freedoms to be found over the iron curtain, she sings "A woman to a man is just a woman / But a man to a woman is her life." An odd sentiment to celebrate when you consider that in the Soviet Union she was treated as the equal of any man. (Well, the character is drunk at the time.) Even the show's hit number, "All of You", is hardly the real turtle soup; only the mock.
The comedy songs fare better, though providing more chuckles than outright laughs. "Stereophonic Sound" is a rousing tribute to the technological advances that overshadowed content in 1950's Hollywood films ("The customer's don't like to see the groom embrace the bride / Unless her lips are scarlet and her bosom five feet wide.") and "Siberia", seemingly an attempt to repeat the success of Kiss Me, Kate's "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", is a humorous soft-shoe about the homeland's frostiest assignment. ("When it's cocktail time, t'will be so nice / Just to know you won't have to phone for ice.") But it is a well-crafted score with some good tunes that keep the plot moving.
Daniel Gerroll makes for a snazzy American agent in his book scenes, but his singing voice is small and all his jaunty confidence disappears whenever the music begins; a major factor in slowing down the show since he has most of the ballads. Valerie Cutko nails her laughs playing Ninotchka with a deadpan delivery in a deep, imposing voice, until she nicely melts into, if not a full-blooded capitalist, at least a pleasure-seeker.
The knockout performance of the evening is delivered by Nina Hennessey, in the role that's... well, meant to provide the knockout performance. As the brassy and sexy Hollywood star she sparkles with pure show-biz fun and sings with a fine Broadway belt. Also in great form are Tom Mardirosian, Robert Ari and Wally Dunn as the comic trio of Soviet officials.
Fisher's direction is basic and efficient, with simple musical staging performed by an exuberant ensemble, but his stylized scene transitions slow down the proceedings. The chorus sounds terrific under music director Lawrence Yurman, who provides the sole accompaniment on piano.
Sure, it's a bit dated and yes, the score lacks the fizz of vintage Porter, but Silk Stockings still has a vibrancy and freshness that bubbles gleefully in this Lost Musicals production. This is what Broadway musicals were like when nobody expected them to run for ten or fifteen years and the morning's headlines could wind up as punchlines in the newest musical hit.
Silk Stockings plays at The French Institute/Florence Gould Hall, September 19, 26 and October 3 at 6:30PM. Visit Ticketmaster.com
Cole Porter photo courtesy of the Cole Porter Music and Literary Trust