As the title would imply, this show is set in that frequent Paris haunt of Porter's (as well as other expatriate American artists such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald) in 1935.
A tall, tuxedo-clad nob with more than a little air of disdainful attitude enters, strides purposefully to a table, pours himself a martini, lights a cigarette and begins to dish with the pianist, making observations about the club's patrons. They are played, respectively, by William Baldwin Young and Judy Brown, the authors of the show's script, which threads through almost two dozen of the composer's songs. But their patter across the piano is more than just a convenient device to segue from number to number. In a dramatic sense, it provides real connective tissue in developing character and framing the music in a new and enlightening way. Most of the songs are, indeed, energized by the shadings of meaning given them by their new contexts. "The Cocotte" from Nymph Errant, for instance, is given a catty feel when sung as a derisive appraisal of sexual competition. The overwhelming majority of the numbers used were cut from such Porter works as Fifty Million Frenchmen (which is soon coming to Broadway), Anything Goes, Jubilee, and Silk Stockings. Not to mention the somewhat less legendary Hitchy Koo of 1919. Some choices are so obscure that no music survives to accompany the lyrics. These were delivered Rex Harrison-style by Young to melodic improvisations by Brown on the piano.
And Young generally delivered a solidly conceived, stylishly rendered portrayal. He was especially successful when his delivery and readings brought the audience into that penumbra between wry humor and lonely ennui in which this man seems to dwell. His body English was as communicative, as when he held a cigarette as if it were a scepter. His singing voice was smoothly expressive with nicely timed pauses into which a number of meanings could clearly be read. And he exuded a silky androgyny that never lapsed into the fey. Brown offered a less compelling dramatic presence but was always convincing in her readings. Her real contribution to the show was in her exceptionally sophisticated, intellectually appealing arrangements and pianism. (Her knowledge of the material is rather impressive; she is co-editing a book of rediscovered and never-published Porter material.)
Director Thommie Walsh's background as a choreographer (two Tonys for My One And Only and Hollywood/Ukraine shared with Tommy Tune) is belied by the minimalist movement scheme he used here. Rather, the striking thing about his staging was not how little movement there was, but how alive and vibrant it came off in spite of what could have felt like one static image of a man sitting at a table next to a piano player. There is no credit for set design, but the cabaret space at Eighty Eights provided one ready-made. The audience is a part of the total production in a very environmental sense. Ironically, this was a far more successful site-specific production than many recent attempts to stage Euripides in a warehouse or Brecht in a foundry.
The lighting design by Matt Berman was beautifully retro and sculpted the whole room into a vividly rendered space. The shifts in mood and atmosphere were also nimbly handled by technical director (and recent M.A.C. Award winner) Jaye Lee.
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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