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The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 13, 2019

Lee Roy Reams, Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina, and Diane Phelan
Photo by Ben Strothmann

Democracy is collapsing. Corporate power is unchallenged. The planet is warming towards uninhabitability. Let's all kick back and enjoy some Cole Porter. Anyhow, that seems to be the philosophy behind The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter, the revue now occupying the stage at York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti. Devised by Ben Bagley, the eccentric record and revue producer, and foisted on a similarly troubled world in 1965, it enjoyed a healthy run off-Broadway and on tour and yielded an incomplete but delectable cast album, populated by the impressive likes of Kaye Ballard and Harold Lang. In well-cast revival at the York, we can see why: The man was a master, and he merits a hearing well beyond the best-known moments of Kiss Me Kate or Anything Goes.

Bagley was, as he liked to remind his audience in his LP liner notes, "certifiably insane," and that trait manifests itself in some curious musical programming in Decline and Fall. Mostly, though, his formula is simple: Provide a narrator who sometimes joins in the singing (here, Lee Roy Reams), back him up with three talented singers who also dance (Diane Phelan, Lauren Molina, and Danny Gardner), supply modest biographical details and witty asides, and stir. We're treated to 30 or so Porter less-than-standards, though some are pretty familiar, plus a medley finale that cleverly strings together the hits we haven't heard, with a word from one scanning into the next — "I've got you under my… heart belongs to Daddy," that sort of thing.

I wasn't around for the 1965 production, which also featured William Hickey, Carmen Alvarez, and Elmarie Wendel, but even that august bunch can scarcely have bested this crew. Let's start with Phelan, who can belt, transition seamlessly into head voice, and, what's more, nail a sophisticated Porter lyric with a sureness that belies her years. This is, after all, a vanished world — where lyrics were not only unfailingly clever and well-rhymed, but sly, insouciant, and name-dropping. Young artists don't always have the tools, overselling the lyric and altering the melody with melismas and other embellishments. Phelan delivers one of the better renditions of "I Happen to Like New York" I've ever heard, and also offers a pensive "After You, Who?", from Gay Divorce, one of Porter's most wrenching ballads. Personally, I don't always find him a convincing writer of love songs; there's an awful lot of darling-angel-divine, a verbal frilliness suggesting less than total sincerity. But when he had it, as here, he really had it.

Danny Gardner: Why isn't he on Broadway all the time? A superior vocalist and a truly dazzling tapper, he livened up the Dames at Sea revival some seasons back and has spent the rest of the time touring. Here he burns up the stage, with Phelan's and Molina's assistance, on "Red, Hot and Blue," and soft-shoes through "I Worship You." (It's sweet, but this soft little ballad isn't the likeliest vehicle for tap shoes.) And he and Phelan expertly wring every last innuendo out of "But in the Morning, No!", though a couple of salacious verses are missing. Molina, so splendid at the York two seasons ago in Desperate Measures, feels a little tentative, evoking none of Fanny Brice in Fanny's "Hothouse Rose," and unsure of how to play "Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor)" — embittered? Ironic? Kidding it? She's aces on "The Tale of the Oyster," though, supplying it with a real build and characterization, not an easy thing with this oddball number. Reams, not quite the supple tenor or lightning tapper he was decades back, is always an amiable presence — a personable guide, skilled at ad-libbing his way out of a misspeak, and a darn good Mae West and Sophie Tucker.

It's a tasty smorgasbord of Porter, not overweighted with list songs and full of beguiling obscurities such as "I've a Shooting Box in Scotland," from Porter's first show, See America First, and "When I Was a Little Cuckoo," tossed off by Beatrice Lillie in The Seven Lively Arts. Pamela Hunt's staging consists mostly of the quartet moving and placing music stands (and, at one point, tossing one onstage from the wings), but she's guided them deftly at the keen art of conveying the ribaldry and satire in this particular songbook. The cast carries lyric sheets, but almost never look at them, and who knows, as the run progresses maybe they'll dispense with them. Eric Svejcar wields a mean keyboard and doesn't overwhelm the unmiked voices, though a couple of vocal arrangements — "Ridin' High," "Let's Fly Away" — are so elaborate as to obscure the melody. And Jamie Goodwin has provided some apt projections, though Joyce Liao's lighting is sometimes too bright to display them clearly.

Most Porter shows are saddled with less than brilliant books, so ripping a couple dozen of his choicest songs out of them and placing them in these performers' expert care makes excellent sense. As the entire world suffers another decline and fall, The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter offers a couple of hours of welcome respite. Wunderbar!

The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter
Through October 20
York Theatre Company, 619 Lexington Avenue (enter on 54th Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenue at St. Peter's Church)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix