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Getting a Kick Out of Cole

In his five-decade career, Cole Porter wrote songs for Fanny Brice, Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante, and Bert Lahr, to name just a few. One measure of his virtuosity as a composer, however, is that no one singer really owns a Porter tune. Not even Frank Sinatra, who starred in the film version of Can-Can. Or La Merman, whose palatial lungs inspired "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and other great showstoppers from Anything Goes.

Indeed, you can imagine the formidable Elaine Stritch having a go at a novelty number like "Thank You So Much, Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby" as easily as, say, the goofy Gertrude Lawrence. (That is, if you're old enough to remember Gertrude Lawrence.) The result is that several astoundingly different interpretations exist of the same three dozen or so popular Porter songs.

This remarkable elasticity is one reason that scores from Porter musicals can be mixed up and poured into delightful new combinations without betraying the essential high-living, sophisticated spirit of the composer himself. That's the case with Hot 'n' Cole, an original revue playing all summer at the Florida Stage. It's faithful to the fantasy world, cocktail-lounge attitude of the Porter song book -- which, as Porter fans know, stresses elegance and romance over the political anxiety of the between-the-wars period in which they were written -- while also reaching out to prove how contemporary and fun the songs still are.

Six high-spirited and fantastically voiced troupers -- three women and three men -- sing, dance, and cavort through familiar numbers from such well-known shows as Anything Goes, Kiss Me, Kate, Can-Can, DuBarry Was a Lady, The New Yorkers, Gay Divorce, and Silk Stockings, as well as the less familiar works The Pirate, Jubilee, You Never Know, and Leave It to Me.

The show, devised by New York-based lyricists/ musical directors David Armstrong, Mark Waldrop, and Bruce W. Coyle, resurrects the hilarious "Tale of the Oyster" from Fifty Million Frenchmen, a comedy that was popular in 1929 but is now nearly forgotten. Sample lyrics: "See that bivalve social climber/ Feeding the rich Mrs. Hoggenheimer,/Think of his joy as he gaily glides/Down to the middle of her gilded insides./Proud little oyster."

Also included is the exquisite minor-key lament "Love For Sale," written for The New Yorkers (1930) and banned from radio play in Porter's lifetime, presumably because it gauges life from the point of view of a streetwalker. (For some reason the ebullient "I'm a Gigolo," from Wake Up and Dream (1929) -- and sung in Hot 'n' Cole by the ebullient Jerry Christakos -- was hardly considered risque at all.) And there's "Night and Day," written for the 1932 musical Gay Divorce and still holding the title -- in my opinion -- of most haunting love song ever composed.

With 46 numbers on the same program, it's inevitable that someone's favorites will get short shrift, but then the problem with Cole Porter is that there's way too much to choose from. At first glance I'd be tempted to throw out a few of the more obscure numbers in favor of, oh, the entire score from Kiss Me, Kate (1948) and the song "You're the Top," which is, alas, absent. On the other hand, having a listen to a lesser-known song like "Take Me Back to Manhattan" (from The New Yorkers) only gives you a fresh opportunity to marvel at Porter's love affair with language. "At a school in Lansing," its speaker confesses, "I've been taking dancing." Indeed, Cole Porter can make anything go.

Overwhelming choices notwithstanding, creators Armstrong, Waldrop, and Coyle knew what they were doing when they put together Hot 'n' Cole, which can presumably fit into a number of theaters, large and small. The Florida Stage production makes use of David Pair's excellent sound design, Jim Hoskins' deft and inventive choreography, Karen Anselm's sharp costume design, Suzanne M. Jones' evocative lighting, and Michael Amico's versatile set design. Pianists Scott Kasbaum and David Nagy not only play well, they engage in a ridiculously silly curtain raiser after the intermission that draws some deserved attention to themselves.

Staged in a tiny replica of Grand Central Station featuring movable benches and chairs, a balcony, plus a number of makeshift performing platforms constructed occasionally from suitcases, the show doesn't favor any one period in the songwriter's life or any particular style of song. It does, however, provide the performers with occasions for solos as well as group efforts, including a lovely version of "I've Got You Under My Skin," sung by all six in an endearing a cappella arrangement.

Some songs are paired point-counterpoint for comic ("Let's Do It" and "Let's Not Talk About Love") or dramatic effect ("Nina" and "Weren't We Fools"). In one particularly clever medley, songs from shows written decades apart -- "Big Town" and "Another Openin' of Another Show," both from 1948, and "I Happen To Like New York" from 1930 -- segue effortlessly into each other. "Now You Has Jazz" is divorced from its association with Louis Armstrong in the film High Society and turned into a snappy production number in which cast members become a sort of balletic octopus, whose many arms and legs are playing different jazz instruments.

The show's big set piece requires the six troupers to pair up into three couples on one huge bed. Each couple tosses lyrics back and forth in a series of comic repartee that nearly gives birth to a brand new minimusical -- one in which miscommunication between men and women provides the dramatic grist. Here, cast members Jessica Sheridan and Mark Santoro enact the dialogue song "But in the Morning, No" as a duel between a husband who wants to sleep and a wife who wants to get to know him better: "Can you do the crawl, my dear?/Kindly tell me, if so," sings Sheridan. Santoro replies: "I can do the crawl, my dear,/But in the morning, no" and buries his head under the pillow.

No sooner has this couple quieted down than up springs Barry Tarallo, singing "Rosalie" to his lover (Laurie Gamache), who clearly has no idea who this Rosalie is. Her retort? "Why Can't You Behave?" -- the scold-your-mate song from Kiss Me, Kate. His response: "Don't Fence Me In." A pillow fight ensues. The third couple -- Kim Cozort and Jerry Christakos -- set each other off with "Without Love" from Silk Stockings (him) and "I Hate Men" from Kiss Me, Kate (her). The production number capitalizes not only on the universal truths of Porter's lyrics but on the affable chemistry among the cast.

The show's one wrong note is its rendition of "Too Darn Hot" from Kiss Me, Kate, staged here by having the performers sensuously drape themselves over club chairs as though Porter had written it for Cabaret. Its lyrics range from spicy to silly -- "I want to sup with my baby tonight/And play the pup/With my baby tonight" -- but it's never tawdry, though that's the tone that Hot 'n' Cole's red-and-black costumes and physical attitudes of this production number seem to be going for.

With an ensemble cast as strong as the one in this production, it's not really necessary to single out individual performers. Still, here's a tip of the hat to Kim Cozort for her endearing comic turn in "Let's Not Talk About Love"; to Mark Santoro for hilariously impersonating the bearer of bad news in "Miss Otis Regrets"; to Laurie Gamache for her exuberant dancing and singing in "I Get a Kick Out of You"; to Jessica Sheridan for a spirited rendition of "I'm Back in Circulation"; to Jerry Christakos for giving us a taste of "Without Love"; and to Barry Tarallo for convincing us "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." You're all the tops.

Stage Whispers
Happy Trails to Roy Rogers, who first popularized Porter's ditty "Don't Fence Me In." The song, based on a poem by a Montana cowboy named Bob Fletcher, was written for Adios Argentina, a movie that Porter scored for the Fox studio, planned for release in 1935 but never made. Not until Warner Bros. released Hollywood Canteen, starring Rogers, in 1944, did the song see the light of day. So, Roy, adios to you as you "straddle [your] old saddle under starry skies above."

Hot 'n' Cole. Music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Devised by David Armstrong, Mark Waldrop, and Bruce W. Coyle. Musical arrangement by Bruce W. Coyle. Directed by J. Barry Lewis. Piano accompaniment by Scott Kasbaum and David Nagy. Starring Jerry Christakos, Kim Cozort, Laurie Gamache, Mark Santoro, Jessica Sheridan, and Barry Tarallo. Through September 5. Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan, 800-514-3837.

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Robin Dougherty

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