To paraphrase that peerless paragon of lyricists/composers, “I feel a sudden urge to scribe the kind of review that invokes Cole Porter,” so here goes: Patrick Young, who is this show’s musical arranger, and Karin Bowersock, the production’s bookwriter, co-conceived a brainstorm that weaves a bevy of separate Porter tunes into a single cohesive whole. As Mama Mia! did with Abba’s disco hits, Young and Bowersock have concocted a plot that seamlessly connects the dots between previously unrelated Porter numbers. The result is the De-Lovely, De-Lightful, De-Lirious, De-vine -- and a bit De-Bauched -- Let’s Misbehave, an all new (but old!) musical now having its California premiere at International City Theatre with a production worthy of ol’ King Cole himself.
The story, such as there is, is set in the 1930s; although there are references to President Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, for the posh Porter this is not the decade of out-of-work wretches on breadlines or pickers of those grapes of wrath -- this is the Art Deco era of gowns, top hats and tails, of swanky sophisticates who drink the wine from those plucked grapes in their penthouses that dot Manhattan’s skyline. Cole Porter’s upscale work is not the stuff of that age’s much-vaunted proletarian theater -- although only this wag would cleverly rhyme the pro-strike Waiting for Lefty playwright “Cliff Odets” with “regrets.” The only apparent explicit acknowledgement of the Depression and its hard times comes in the song Never Never Be an Artist, which Porter originally wrote for Can-Can. The ditty laments the lot of suffering artistes, with this droll refrain about “la vie de boheme”:
“Never, never be an artist
If you think you can make one cent.
Never, never be an artist
If you’ve no one to pay your rent.”
For the most part, Porter’s concerns aren���t economical, but cultural and gender-role oriented; he was a closeted bi- and/or homosexual during a steeply repressive era who worked his sexual conflicts and themes out in his oeuvre (alas, his misfortune is our good fortune). Porter’s puns and word play is often truly “risque business,” a form of oral sex. His suggestive lyrics about those “olden days [when] a glimpse of stocking Was looked on as something shocking,” as well as the storyline of Let’s Misbehave (the title sort of says it all!), express Porter’s sexual transgressiveness, although your plot spoiler averse scribbler won’t spill the tale’s beans. (However, I like to fancy that had Porter himself dreamt up this story it would have ended with a naughty ménage à trois.)
The cast consists of the sublime Jennifer Shelton, who was in the first national company of Ragtime and co-starred in ICT’s 2013 revival of the 1978 Broadway show Ain’t Misbehavin’ which -- although that production did have the barest of plots -- was essentially a revue of Fats Waller’s songs. It is a measure of how our civilization has progressed since Porter’s more segregated time as to how the relationship between Shelton’s character Alice, an African American woman, and her Caucasian co-stars simply goes unremarked upon -- although during Porter’s heyday the Hollywood Production Code would literally have banned such a thing from the silver screen. One likes to think that a broadminded Porter is smiling down upon this progress from that great orchestra pit in the sky.
Co-star Lindsey Alley, who plays Dorothy, has performed on and Off-Broadway and was one of the Mouseketeers on the Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Club revamp, along with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell, with whom Alley appeared in the 2008 movie Bedtime Stories, with Adam Sandler and Courtney Cox.
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Musical theater veteran Marc Ginsburg plays Walter (one imagines that his stint as Harry Reems in Zephyr Theatre’s The Deep Throat Sex Scandal prepared Ginsburg for performing in a Porter play with its own spoken deep throating of sex). The trio’s singing is pitch perfect, their acting charming and the hoofing choreographed by director Todd Nielsen is good fun to watch (and one blithely thinks to do). Pianist Brian Baker ably accompanies the songbirds’ 30-plus songs, as the trouper tickles the ivories throughout the two-acter.
Set designer JR Bruce’s Art Deco scenery is simple but provides the right period panache to literally set the stage. Costume designer Kim DeShazo’s era apparel is elegant, although it’s hard to believe that an artist clad in tie and tails would be down-at-his-heels. It should be noted that a number of audience members at the well-attended premiere were likewise clad in their swankiest 1930s regalia.
And now a word about the real star of the show, whom the co-creators, cast and crew have brought back to the footlights with this frothy concoction. Cole Porter’s melodies are sometimes preternaturally de-lovely, as in Night and Day. However, his lyrics are always jaunty, droll and ingenious. But seriously, folks, who else could possibly rhyme “provincial” with “Walter Winchell”? His conjuring up of a new term such as "Tin Pan-tithesis" surely propels him into the Pantheon of wordsmithery.
My own writing has been praised by an Academy Award winning screenwriter/director, a top investigative reporter and a National Book Award winning novelist. There’s an article about the new book I co-authored in the Jan. 26 Honolulu Star-Advertiser. However, to prevent my head from swelling, all I have to do is ponder Porter’s sparkling wit and word play, which leads me to lament:
When I scribe I oughta
Sound like a nightingale’s warble
In order to rhyme like divine Cole Porter
But alas, unlike he, I’m merely mortal.
[dc]L[/dc]et’s Misbehave is being performed on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through Feb. 16 at the International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90802. For more info: (562) 436-4610; www.InternationalCityTheatre.com.
The new book co-authored by Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” See:http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.