DU BARRY WAS A LADY
Grant Park Symphony Orchestra
KISS ME, KATE
at the Civic Theatre
Last weekend, as John McGlinn conducted DuBarry Was a Lady, it suddenly became 1939, and Cole Porter–not Andrew Lloyd Webber–was on top on Broadway. Grant Park Concerts’ annual revivals offer Chicago audiences vintage Broadway at a time when Broadway needs all the past it can get. Now in their third year, these “Broadway Nights” couldn’t be more welcome (Jerome Kern’s Sunny played in 1989, Porter’s Anything Goes in 1988). So far, each production, prepared by McGlinn and commissioned by Grant Park Concerts, has been a delight, a time capsule that unlocks an era through its songs. And each has yielded a definitive performing edition for future revivals.
Few songwriters have captured their time better than Porter. His plots may self-destruct as they go (only Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate don’t), but his superbly detailed music making virtually defines sophistication. Porter’s shows lovingly depict lowlifes who want the high life–a gangster impersonator glorying in the notoriety of being a public enemy, and Times Square habitues, jaded socialites, and chorus girls dreaming of headlining at their own nightclubs. Porter knew them well: if George M. Cohan peddled the American dream, Porter lived it–and crammed it into his scores.
Porter’s words and notes seemed destined for each other–just what should happen when a composer fuses them himself. Those songs save DuBarry Was a Lady from itself. A vehicle tailored to the talents of Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr, DuBarry Was a Lady feels as if Porter dashed it off between cocktail parties. But that was his gift–making it look easy. His compositions conceal his efforts the way his life hid its pain (DuBarry Was a Lady was written shortly after Porter’s crippling fall from a horse).
The flimsy book by Herbert Fields and B.G. DeSylva concerns Louie Blore (Lahr’s character), a recent winner of the Irish Sweepstakes. Madly and pointlessly, Louie loves May Daly (Merman’s role), a brassy chanteuse. But May’s heart is reserved for Alex Barton–if Alex can raise $10,000 to bribe his wife into a divorce.
The intrigues matter only for the songs they trigger, such as May’s invigorating “Come on In,” a raunchy barker’s anthem that immediately stirs a fever of expectancy. Porter also gave May the jaunty “When Love Beckoned on 52nd Street,” a ballad he jazzed up, then neatly changed into an up-tempo swing waltz. Louie sings a hilariously crude patter song, “It Ain’t Etiquette,” that warns against throwing rocks at parties or writing smut on your hostess’s bathroom walls (you can all but see Lahr leering between the stanzas).
Linking the numbers is peppery vaudeville dialogue. Louie (as he paws May): “I can read you like a book.” May: “You don’t have to use the braille system.” Another exchange: “Money can’t buy happiness.” “No, but it can buy the things that do.” Or, May to Louie: “With your money, you don’t need brains.”
In a weird plot twist, Louie gulps down the Mickey Finn he meant for Alex and fantasizes that he’s transported to the court of Versailles as King Louis XV. In this very Americanized French court Louie finds exact counterparts for the New Yorkers he knows. A “streetwalker from Paris,” DuBarry is every bit as earthy as May (among the anachronisms she unleashes are “Hot pomme de terre!”). Louie escapes this corrective flashback with a new awareness: “You can’t do anything about love–it just goes where it’s sent.” Then he generously uses his money to help May love Alex.
McGlinn used several of the fine artists he employed in his celebrated reconstructions of Show Boat, Anything Goes, and Kiss Me, Kate–and they’re the kind of singers Porter wrote for.
The vibrato-crazy Merman was perfect for the brazen belting of “Give Him the Oo-La-La!” Kim Criswell is a worthy successor, whether crooning the raucously ribald “Katie Went to Haiti” or joining David Garrison’s Louie in the famous, still wonderfully ebullient “Friendship” duet (to which Porter added numerous topical encores during the run).
Aping Lahr’s lisp, the rubber-faced Garrison mugged well–and never better than in his salacious question-and-answer duet with Criswell, “But in the Morning, No!” With its typical Porter double entendres–on “sell your seat,” the “breast stroke,” and “double entry”–this song seems daring even today.
Rebecca Luker, a radiant Sunny in last year’s Kern revival, played the ingenue with pep and sass, merrily joining handsome Guy Stroman in the cynical novelty number “Well, Did You Evah! (What a Swell Party This Is).” And tenor Cris Groenendaal threw himself gamely into Alex’s exotic “It Was Written in the Stars” and blended beautifully with Criswell in the underrated ballad “Do I Love You?”
The Grant Park Symphony Orchestra was Broadway quality throughout, as were the 25 members of the Grant Park Symphony Chorus, who were coached by Michael Cullen.
If DuBarry Was a Lady seems a faded delight, Kiss Me, Kate remains ripe for revival. This sparkler won the 1948 Tony for best musical and–at 1,077 performances–became the fourth-longest-running musical of a brilliant decade. It’s a pity Kiss Me, Kate didn’t come sooner, for the sake of Porter’s self-confidence, but it reversed an artistic decline that set in soon after DuBarry Was a Lady, restored Porter’s reputation, and encouraged him to write Can-Can (1953) and his swan song, Silk Stockings (1955).
In Kiss Me, Kate Porter’s whiplash lyrics and plush score meet a witty book by Sam and Bella Spewack that mocks the backstage spats of Alfred Lunt and his wife Lynn Fontanne. Kiss Me, Kate depicts two overly sensitive artistes, feuding ex-spouses who almost sabotage an opening night of The Taming of the Shrew (the Lunts’ private life was the stage). Fortunately, life imitates art. After the usual misunderstandings and a run-in with a couple of culture-loving gangsters, temperamental Lilli (“I Hate Men”) falls back in love with Fred (“So in Love Am I”).
What keeps this musical great is how spontaneously it proves a show-biz truth: if the show does go on, it’s because the show’s bigger than the actors’ egos. From the pulsatingly exciting opener “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” to the almost operatic finale, Kiss Me, Kate teems with Porter’s love of hammy histrionics and the artifice of art.
Marshall Productions’ concert performance offered a standard for musical-comedy restorations. Reset as a 1949 radio broadcast (sponsored by the absurdly cheap “Signal” gasoline), this production came complete with old-fashioned microphones, postwar costumes and hairstyles, and nifty sound effects from a hard-working John Mossman.
Marred only by Civic Theatre acoustics that made bits of the fast-paced dialogue hard to catch, this re- creation, which was directed by William Brown and Suzanne Petri, glowed from song to song. Appropriately, since this was supposed to be a radio show, the music mattered most. Darren Matthias would probably not be cast in a stage version to play burly Fred–but here he could think as much as feel his way through Petruchio’s seductive “Were Thine That Special Face” (which pulses with Porter’s beloved beguine beat). With Matthias’s clear diction–he never lost a consonant–even a standard such as “So in Love Am I” never sounded blandly familiar. Mary Ernster poured Lilli’s love of the grand flourish into a florid cadenza for the first-act finale, and she and Matthias made musical gold out of the gorgeous waltz “Wunderbar.”
William Brown and Kathy Santen, the colorful lovers Lucentio and Bianca, made a deliciously funny duo. Brown relished the smoothly flowing “Bianca,” and Santen ranged from the lush “Why Can’t You Behave?” to the show-stopping teaser “Always True to You in My Fashion.”
In a show rich with deft character roles, Rick Boynton shone as a winsome, self-effacing Paul. His voice a comic quaver, Bob O’Donnell was a hoot as the garrulous Baptista. In the vaudevillian “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” (which DuBarry Was a Lady’s “It Ain’t Etiquette” anticipates), Dan Frick and Anthony Cesaretti played their oafish gangsters with a boffo deadpan.
Under Richard Hoffman’s musical direction, the 23-piece orchestra lovingly explored every facet of Robert Russell Bennett’s supple arrangements. But then, they were playing Cole Porter.