92nd Street Y
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan
As seen Sun Feb 12, 2017
Teaser: Cole Porter is resurrected at the 92 Street Y with some “de-lovely” tunes from The American Songbook.
The 92nd Street Y “Lyrics & Lyricists” program recently presented “Let’s Misbehave,” a whirlwind tour of the art and life of the great American songwriter Cole Porter. Written and hosted by 92nd Street Y’s Artistic Director David Loud, Porter devotees not only learned what made Porter tick but what made him click with music-lovers who savor brilliance and precision in a tune.
Accompanied on stage by vocalists Allison Blackwell, Lewis Cleale, Nikki Renee Daniels, Rebecca Luker, and Matthew Scott, Loud adroitly balanced the program with his narration and the vocal performances. Rather than presenting Porter’s songs in strictly chronological fashion, Loud zig-zagged through three decades, from the 20s through the mid-50s. No doubt the audience was treated to a hefty—and delicious--slice of The American Songbook. What’s more, Loud posed the pesky question at the outset of the program: “Just what is this thing called Cole Porter?”
Instead of answering it outright, Loud deep dove into the songs themselves. The opening number was “Let’s Misbehave,” a ballad that was embraced by many but shrugged off by others. According to my program notes, it was first introduced at the Ambassadeurs Café in 1927 but, alas, would be cut from the musical Paris (1928). In any event, it pointed up that Porter’s career was no cakewalk and that the icon suffered many rude bumps on his road to fame.
Three other songs followed this opener. But it wasn’t ‘til the orchestra played the first notes from “You’re the Top” from Anything Goes (1934) that the audience really perked up their ears. It was energetically sung by the cast, who wonderfully teased out its daisy-chain of flatteries. When this faded out, the orchestra immediately segued into “It’s De-Lovely” from Red, Hot, and Blue (1936), affectingly sung solo by Cleale. Good as it was, the show really ratcheted up its tempo when Blackwell, Daniels, Cleale, and Scott crooned the classic “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” from Paris (1928). Few other songs better showcase Porter’s impudent wit and naughty sophistication. Written early in Porter’s career, it truly put him on the map of the musical world and made him a songwriter to reckon with. Though six more ballads followed this gem in Act 1, none connected quite as strongly with the audience.
If Act 1 was fun, Act 2 was doubly so. It opened with Cleale and Scott reprising ”Let’s Misbehave”--but delivered with more of a wink in its second go-round. On its musical heels, Blackwell, Daniels, and Luker joined their feminine hearts in “Let’s Not Talk About Love” from Let’s Face it! (1941). True, Porter’s lyrics outclass his music here. But the three female singers added an “oomph” that made the number winning. Of course, the real highlights in Act 2 were the selections from Porter’s late-career masterpiece, Kiss Me Kate. For who can resist the electricity pulsing through the song “Another Op’nin, Another Show”? The blazing lyrics of “Too Darn Hot”? Or the literate wit tucked into “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”? In short, Act 2 was chock-a-block with Porter at his best.
While the vocalists breathed life into Porter’s songs, Loud infused the “soul” into the 2-hour program. He recounted anecdotes from Porter’s career and personal life that illuminated his entire canon. He shared telling details from Porter’s privileged childhood in Peru, Indiana, and how his mother was the one who always believed in her son’s musical talent. Loud also cited the friction that existed between Porter and his wealthy grandfather J.O. Cole. It began when Porter insisted on attending East Coast schools, namely Worcester Academy and Yale, despite objections from his grandfather. Loud noted that Porter succeeded at musically distinguishing himself at both Eastern academic institutions. However, when he later shifted over to study law, he proved to be a poor student at Harvard Law School. Nudged by his professors to transfer to the Music School, Porter quickly obliged them. Loud, at this point, raised his eyes from his script and paused, as if to let the audience know that Porter did have chinks in his armor indeed. But even so, Porter eventually landed on his feet by returning to his real passion: music.
Loud spiced up his patter even more by divulging details about Porter’s sexual dalliances. To wit: Porter had many male lovers over the years, even though he remained married to his wife Linda. Other tidbits shared? Loud broadly outlined Porter’s dozen years in Europe, his social forays into high society both on the continent and back in the U.S., and of course his “breaking the rules” of songwriting and the conventional forms. Loud delivered, in fact, a master class on the icon, pointing out the hallmarks of Porter’s style, including his inverted syntax, unexpected rhymes, word play, and humorous juxtaposition of classical and popular images. Loud wrapped up all of Porter’s artistic idiosyncrasies in four words: “It kept people listening.”
Although the focus was on the life and art of Porter, the deco artwork slides lent to the atmosphere—and was visually scrumptious. During the performance, one saw a kaleidoscope of projected images that underscored the mood of each song and anchored it to a specific time or place. The deco artwork never upstaged the music, songs, or Loud’s patter but it certainly infused a rich texture into the musical proceedings.
All in all, “Let’s Misbehave” was a joyous celebration of Cole Porter’s life and art. Not only was it a terrific primer on Porter’s life but a sensational sampling of his well-known and not-so-well-known songs. Whoever was lucky enough to be present at this tribute to Porter learned why he was the reigning sophisticate of songwriting during the 20s, 30s, and 40s.
Five performances only.
At the 92nd Street Y, Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street, Manhattan.
For more information on the 92nd Street Y programs, visit www.92Y.org
Running Time: 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.