Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Jan 13, 2014
07:41 PM
Stage Write

You're the Top

You're the Top

PHOTO BY JASON ATKINS

Cole Porter (Chris Younggren) is the bon vivant of every party in MTG's "Red, Hot & Cole"

It’s a testament to the sheer and prolific musical talent of Cole Porter that “Red, Hot, & Cole,” Randy Strawderman’s dramatic-musical tribute to the man who gave us “Anything Goes” runs nearly two hours—and still doesn’t include all the master’s hit songs.  

Jim Chiolino, the president of Madison Theatre's Guild’s Board of Directors, is a huge Porter fan, and he’s sharing the love by directing and staging Strawderman’s ode (on stage in the Bartell Theater’s Drury Stage through January 25). He’s collected cast who loves Porter as much as he does, and the result is a la-lovely and entertaining reminder of the greatness of one of America’s greatest composers.

The show’s narrative, strung between everything from “I Get a Kick out of You” to “Begin the Beguine,” traces Porter’s rise from the bon vivant of the 1920s Paris-era party scene to Broadway and Hollywood success and his battle to regain his form and stardom with his musicals Leave it to Me! and Kiss Me Kate in the wake of the accident that left him crippled. Along the way, he encounters a verifiable who’s who of literary, performing and composing legends of his time, including Dorothy Parker, Ethel Merman, Noel Coward, Moss Hart and George Kaufmann.

With his slicked-back hair and stylishly natty outfits, Christopher Younggren reminds a little of John Waters without the pencil ‘stache. He’s great at capturing Porter’s cool remove, easy charm and devastating wit. Whether he’s holding court, a cigarette or a martini, Younggren’s Porter is literally the life of the endless stream of cabaret parties that form the show’s structure.  

The show’s real vocal—and for that matter, acting—standout is Rachel Eve Holmes as Porter’s saintly and long-suffering wife, Linda. Not only is she great at showing her character’s range of shifting emotions, from giddy and vivacious to jealous and angry and back again, but her performance of Porter’s “So in Love” in the second act approaches K.D. Lang levels of artistry. Theola V. Carter’s nightclub dancer Bricktop, Terry Kiss Frank’s Ethel Merman and Bonnie Balke’s Elsa Maxwell also impress in multiple tunes. (The other unsung star is pianist Erin Crabb, who nails nearly two hours of Porter tunes with nary a dropped note.)

The male members of the cast aren’t quite as up to the vocal gymnastics required to pull off Porter’s repertoire, especially when the male solos stray out of the baritone range. What they lack in vocal range they more than make up for in sheer enthusiasm and timing. As longtime Porter pal Monty Woolley, Ned O’Reilly nails the comedic elements in “Miss Otis Regrets.”

The show doesn’t touch much on the composer’s well-hidden bisexual double life—an affectionate scene with the flighty Coward and a somewhat profane re-do of “You’re the Top” is about as far as it’s willing to go in that direction—but it does give a fascinating look at a man whose wit and musical genius could overcome almost any obstacle. Whether you’re a lifelong Porter fan or have somehow managed to miss the charms of “It’s De-Lovely’ and “Don’t Fence Me In,” you’ll leave the Bartell with a Porter song in your heart and a big ol’ smile on your face. 

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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