Musical Repertorie Theatre
Unsung Cole presents an odd case. If the title were literally true, these “undiscovered Cole Porter melodies” could never be heard. But I’m glad they are being heard, given a cast with the savvy of the six performers in Ben Tweel’s Musical Repertorie Theatre staging. They know how to bring the unsung to life.
Unsung Cole follows in a growing tradition. In the 70s, Ben Bagley’s revues and recordings reviving Porter proved you can treasure the musicals’ songs without keeping their books. Indeed, only Anything Goes and Kiss Me Kate are regularly revived, and Silk Stockings and Can-Can are better known as films than shows. The world has forgotten Hitchy-Koo, See America First, Leave It to Me, You Never Know, and Red Hot and Blue–at least until show-biz resuscitator John McGlinn decides to revive them.
Originally produced in 1980 off-Broadway, Unsung Cole is set in a 1940s nightclub (the small stage at Kiku’s makes for an intimate setting indeed). Arranger Norman L. Berman assembled unpublished and little-known Porter songs, including rarities that were dropped during a run. Though it’s true that some unsung Cole beats a lot of the stuff that is sung, happily the revue also includes–and harmonically reexplores–classics like “From This Moment On” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
This cross section of a career provides a supple showcase for Porter’s creativity. You can savor the way he matches a deathless melody with lush lyrics that could stand on their own, or reduces the melodic line to pure rhythm so the words can win out, as in the Cab Calloway tribute “Swinging the Jinx Away.”
In the content, too, Porter engages in a fascinating balancing act. In “A Lady Needs a Rest” and the calculatedly simple “Why Don’t We Try Staying Home?” he reacts against his own patented sophistication: “We’ve done everything twice / . . . Just being still / Would give us a brand new thrill.” “Take Me Back to Manhattan” manages to transform heartland homesickness into driving urbanity. And Porter could trade on his own times: “Jungle Drum” merrily spoofs the Dorothy Lamour sarong craze–and the lengths to which some women would go to conform to it.
Though some songs, like the ponderous tribute to inscrutable “Paree,” communicate only too well why they’re unsung, there are discoveries to be made here. “Give Me This Land,” sung by seasick expatriates returning home, is a cunning laundry list of all the American excesses they pretend to miss. The spoof “That’s Why I Love You” includes among its wacko reasons for romance: “You always bring your own gin.” “Olga” is a silly, schmaltzy, pseudo-Soviet torch song rich with Porter’s wicked rhymes: “Olga from the Volga / Made the whole of London moan / . . . Chanting that Russian ballad / Dressed like a Russian salad.” David Gethman croons “Olga” while wearing a Rasputin wig and trying to look soulful.
Gethman is one of six skilled troupers backed up by Susanna Kist’s nicely textured piano. Uninterrupted by narration or self-conscious, cute stage business, the 27 songs flow seamlessly from each other, with enough choreography added to occasionally let the rhythms take over from the voice. In “Still of the Night,” James Rank and Sharon Daw perform a careful but charming homage to Astaire and Rogers.
These singers–Julie Soddy, Sandra Cross, and Peter Natzke in addition to Rank, Daw, and Gethman–know how to play up to an audience (sometimes to within inches of them) and how to season a song with a mix of period flourishes and unforced sincerity. Not at all unsung themselves, several have voices too big for the tiny room–Cross’s version of the vampy “Lost Liberty Blues” is disconcertingly operatic. But better that extreme than its opposite.
Best of all, the feelings buried in these potent songs can’t be kept down. High spots include Gethman and Cross seizing on Porter’s insistent repetition to build the duet “Ours” into their own rich rhapsody. Comedienne Daw has contagious fun with the hilariously detailed lament “Nobody’s Chasing Me.” Natzke reinvents the flippant pain Porter only half-hid in his jaunty “Just One of Those Things.” Soddy and the men smoothly sail from the peppy Kiss Me Kate courtship romp, “Marry Me,” to Bianca’s salacious “Tom, Dick or Harry.” And Cross’s daringly transposed “So in Love” allows us to hear that ballad in a new way, from the inside out; ironically, it feels as unsung as the numbers that truly are.