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Ricky Russell, Stephen Zinnato,
and Lynn Halliday are Porterphiles
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Lovers of the Great American Songbook should attend and applaud The York Theatre Company production of Porterphiles. After all, any opportunity to hear unpublished and rarely performed Cole Porter tunes offers immediate and obvious appeal. While it becomes clear during this earnest revue that there was a reason why some of these songs went unpublished, the undeniable fact is that mediocre Cole Porter creations still have a level of craftsmanship and style that far surpasses most songs written during his day and ours. Happily, for every disappointing lump of Cole to be found here, there are at least two diamonds in the rough.

True blue Porter fans might well know a handful of songs in this show; patrons of cabaret clubs and piano bars will have heard some of these as well, because Porter is never out of season in such venues. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the more than 30 songs collected in Porterphiles will be new to most folks. Several of the tunes are buoyed by their clever placement in the show, while others are left to fend for themselves. Like the architecture of a building, this musical revue gains and loses support from the way it is put together.

An uneven cast of three is saddled with a song and dance structure that sometimes seems relentless rather than charming, and this is all the more bothersome because the musical staging by Barry McNabb is embarrassing. In any event, there is a misguided notion at work here that the songs chosen must fit the established tone and style of the revue; as a result, the format becomes the driving force behind the show, rather than the music itself. Except for one inspired sequence of songs, the best moments of Porterphiles are stand-alone numbers in which a performer or combination of performers simply communicates the music and lyrics with refreshing directness, cabaret style.

No one in this cast does that better than Stephen Zinnato, who displays a compelling combination of natural ease and showmanship. When he sings "The Extra Man" (written for Wake Up and Dream, 1929, but unused), he underscores the song's poignancy while still displaying its humor. And Zinnato's rendition of "I Wrote a Play" (Seven Lively Arts, 1944) shows off his considerable acting chops; the performance is a tour de force. On the other hand, Ricky Russell often gives in to the stylized format of the revue, and we rarely feel that he's filtering Porter's songs through his own personality. The same holds true for the show's lone female, soprano Lynn Halliday, who doesn't seem to understand that Porter's songs often work best when performed with sly understatement.

Curiously, Russell & Halliday come off best when they perform together. Or perhaps it's not so curious, in that their duets often consist of some of the best material in the revue. "That's Why I Love You" is a case in point: A witty patter number that was cut from Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), it's a tune in which the man and woman describe the reasons for their mutual affection. ("You always bring your own gin" was our favorite.)

Director James Morgan and musical director Judy Brown have created a truly inspired sequence which begins when they link a couple of modest drinking numbers together at the end of the first act. The cast becomes increasingly soused as the two men begin the smartly sarcastic "So What?" (written for High Society but unused) and then, joined by Halliday, follow it up with "Tequila" (cut from Mexican Hayride). When the second act starts, the cast is still partying to the strains of "Tequila," but it turns out that a wonderful concept has been percolating: As the song finally ends, the threesome is entirely hung over and desperate for "Coffee" (from the unproduced musical Ever Yours).

When all is said and done, however, the primary reason this revue exists is to showcase little-heard Porter songs. Though that goal could have been achieved more effectively, we are thankful to hear these songs at all.

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