Tuesday, August 13, 2013

No Poor-Man's Porter, Theo Ubique's "A Cole Porter Songbook" adds the sizzle to the summer

The cast of "A Cole Porter Songbook" clockwise from left:
William Lucas, Sierra Naomi, Christopher Logan and Jill Sesso

Cross-posted from Broadwayworld.com
 The summer sun doesn’t have anything on Rogers Park theatre troupe Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre. The group’s latest, the musical revue “A Cole Porter Songbook” puts plenty of sizzle into the summer and has now been extended through Sept. 15.
To some extent, Cole Porter was way ahead of his time in terms of lyric and music. The musical vehicles by which those tunes appear, however, have not aged well and usually feel dated when revived. Freed of the shackles of their dated, musical conventions, the songs soar.
Rather than assemble a hitlist of familiar Cole Porter songs, music arranger Aaron Benham has included some lesser known ditties as well (full disclosure: Mr. Benham and I sang in the same section of CGMC for a few seasons).  For every familiar tune such as “Too Darn Hot” (from the often-revived “Kiss Me Kate”) you get “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking” from Cole Porter’s last musical score, the 1958 TV musical “Aladdin.”  There is perhaps nothing more obscure than “Aladdin”; broadcasted just once as part of CBS’ “DuPont Show of the Month,” the musical is currently not available on VHS or DVD. Granted, Barbra Streisand did cover it on her 1963 self-titled album, but one could argue the tune wouldn’t be recognized by anyone other than the most ardent of Babs’ fans.
Can the troupe invigorate Porter? Yes, they can-can.
Porter was a master of the double-entendre. You still marvel at what he was able to get away with in songs like “The Physician” and Experiment (both from 1933’s “Nymph Errant”). There is so much wit and intelligence in lyrics compared to today’s standard Broadway fare. Benham served as musical director on Nightblue’s critically-acclaimed production of “Avenue Q” last season and the difference could not be –to borrow a line from Porter—more night and day.  There is something to be celebrated in not stating the obvious.
Musically, the production is something of a revelation. I have heard many of these songs in countless productions and cabaret settings and yet under the guidance of director Anzevino and Benham, this is the first time I recognized how Porter’s use of meter and melody predates the work of eminant composer Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim’s respect and reverence for Porter is a bit of a foregone conclusion.  
Of course, a musical revue is only as good as its performers and Anzevino had assembled a truly remarkable quartet.
Sierra Naomi has some very big shoes, er pipes to fill tackling the Ethel Merman standard “Anything Goes” as well as the Roy Rangers standard “Don’t Fence Me In” (from “Anything Goes” and the film “Hollywood Canteen,” respectively. In both cases, she manages to own each piece as if it were written just for her.
Christopher Logan is a charming hoofer and along with William Lucas (a dashing, boy-next-door type), manages to milk every last laugh out of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Joined by Jill Sesso in a medley of “Let’d Do It” and “Let’s Not Talk About Love”  (1928’s “Paris” and 1941’s “Let’s Face It,” respectively) and later in the evening in the medley of “Experiment,” and “Let’s Misbehave” (the latter actually cut from “Paris,” and added to the 1962 revival of “Anything Goes”), Logan, Lucas and Sesso form a passionate yet tasteful menage a trois that would have no doubt delighted the late composer.
Jill Sesso (right) and William Lucas are "De-Lovely" indeed.
If it were possible for there to be one standout in all this talent, it is Ms. Sesso. Her work on the previously mentioned medleys as well as in “I Get a Kick Out of You” (from “Anything Goes”) and “It’s De-Lovely,” (1936’s “Red, Hot & Blue”) is a sight to be seen. She is an up and coming actress that is definitely one to watch.     
Anzevino’s direction is minimal, allowing the voices of his talented cast, the choreography by David Heimann,  the superb vocal arrangements by Benham  and the tight-knit three-piece band (Benham works double duty tinkling the keys) truly to shine.   
It is particularly apparent in the show’s many ensemble numbers. You are unlikely to hear anything more glorious than the gorgeous harmonies of “Night and Day” (from 1932’s “Gay Divorce”) and you just may find yourself once again “So In Love” with the lyrics and melodies of one of the Golden Age of Broadway’s brightest composers.
“A Cole Porter Songbook” is running through Sept. 15 at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at No Exit CafĂ©, 6970 N. Glenwood. Tickets, $29-$59. (800)595—4849. www.theo-u.com.

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