Harry Connick Jr. Brings a Goofy Cole Porter Tribute to Broadway
The jazz musician takes the stage at the Nederlander for a holiday-season run.
Earlier this year, there was an off-Broadway revue called Sincerely, Oscar. It was a painfully earnest tribute to Oscar Hammerstein II in which the centerpiece was a hologram of the lyricist that spoke, in various platitudes, about the importance of being a dreamer. It quickly became obvious that Sincerely, Oscar was a vanity project for its author and star, who seemed oblivious to her project's absurdity.
Harry Connick Jr.'s A Celebration of Cole Porter at the Nederlander Theatre has more going for it than that show: The musicianship, obviously, is outstanding. The budget is certainly larger, too, with more sets (designed by Beowulf Boritt and Alexis Distler) than many Broadway musicals, and lighting (by Ken Billington) to match. And there's an orchestra of 24, practically unheard of by today's Broadway standards.
Where A Celebration of Cole Porter is similar is in its obliviousness. Connick is the show's writer and director, and with only him captaining the ship, there's no one to tell him how ridiculous certain aspects are: how he shouldn't open the show with an almost 10-minute video wherein he scales an Empire State Building-sized statue of Porter and jumps in his ear in order to get in the songwriter's head; how unintentionally campy it is to describe how Porter's legs were crushed in a horseback-riding accident, only to invite an actor playing Porter to tap dance with him a few scenes later (that actor, by the way, is named Aaron Burr). For every good moment (and there are several), Connick ruins it with something amazingly cheesy.
How's the music? Great. The orchestra is insanely vibrant as it backs Connick's luxurious voice, which finds sultry ways into classics like "Why Can't You Behave?," "Mind If I Made Love to You?," and "In the Still of the Night." A comically long piano is pulled out and played upon during "Begin the Beguine." A New Orleans jazz-style rendition of "I Love Paris" is a particularly inspired highlight (as is the only non-Porter selection, Connick's own "Take Her to the Mardi Gras"). If you want to hear a great big band at the height of its powers, this is the show for you.
Connick is a serious performer who takes his work seriously. But he's not one to smile onstage very often, which makes some of his patter awkward. Laugh lines don't land as they should because he's not saying them with any particular inflection. A director would have helped guide him through it, and a writing partner would have steered him clear. The only spoken section that caught my attention was when he discussed the differences between arranging music and orchestrating it, using the expressive lyrics of "Night and Day" to dictate its instrumentation. It was the only point where Connick exemplified exactly what he loves about the Cole Porter catalogue, and this goofy tribute could have used much more of the same.