Mining Cole

About 45 minutes into Phoenix Theatre's Cole, members of the cast fall into a superb jazz ballet that elevates the production from what it had been up to that moment: a pleasant near-miss. Cole is jammed with such showstoppers, which makes for an entertainment that's both exhilarating and exhausting. Not to mention repetitive. Yet director/choreographer Robert L. Harper and company do their darnedest to sell each song, and they often succeed.

Cole collects Cole Porter's best-known and most-loved music into a loose chronology of the composer's life assembled by Alan Strachan and Benny Green. Most of the material is from Porter's Broadway career, which included a remarkable succession of hits, among them The Gay Divorce with Fred Astaire (1932), Anything Goes (1934), Red, Hot and Blue (1936), and DuBarry Was a Lady with Ethel Merman (1939). His Hollywood successes of the same era included scores for Born to Dance (1936) and Rosalie (1937). Later hits Kiss Me Kate (1948), Can-Can (1953) and Silk Stockings (1955) made Porter a legend.

Cole contains selections from each of these, enacted in full costume and dance routines by a cast of 10. Harper has mixed his singers and dancers well. While it's unfortunate that none of the cast does both exceptionally, we're given little time to consider this, because so many of them deliver a song or dance effortlessly. And so many Porter tunes invite a hammy reading "It's De-lovely," "Love for Sale" and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," to name a few that many of the better ensemble numbers compensate with flash and wit for what they lack in execution.

Harper's choreography is often as naughty as some of Porter's naughtier lyrics, which, considering when they were penned, are already pretty risqué. Katherine Todd sells "Laziest Gal in Town" (the first of her solos worthy of Todd's talents) about an almost-shady lady, and "Love for Sale," in which she dons what looks like a table runner to sing about prostitution. Jim Graft delivers an elegant, straight-faced reading of "I'm a Gigolo," one of several solos that showcase his warm, rich voice. Would that Harper had allowed Graft, who's no hoofer, to stand still rather than handing him prissy dance steps to stumble through.

In fact, if there's a problem with Harper's workmanlike choreography, it's that there's so much of it. There are plenty of blank-stare ballads in this score, and with voices like Kristen Drathman's to deliver them, a few more stand-and-deliver routines would have been nice. Still, Harper scores several swell routines even if he does fall back on a perennial Phoenix Theatre trick, the audience-participation number most notably his slick tap line for "Anything Goes" and "Leader of a Big-Time Band," which begins as a simple three-part girl-group number, then bursts into a swell ensemble piece spiked with hotcha hoofing. Harper's better routines are sold by Travis Dixon, whose precise ballet and tap enliven each number he's in, and by the four- and five-person ensembles he creates to move numbers like "Come On In" and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," a delightfully raunchy routine stomped gleefully by the male cast.

There's an endless parade of costumes, each of them uglier than the one before. Costume designer Tim Slope's garishly colored and marabou-trimmed gowns manage to make each of the women look like a female impersonator. Slope and makeup designer Manuela Needhammer are at least on the same page: The male cast members wear more eye makeup than most drag queens.

Cole has been mostly sold out for weeks now, and it's unlikely that the remaining tickets will go to anyone who cares if the show is occasionally unsubtle or undersung. This is a more-than-adequate production that celebrates the tuneful life of one of our greatest American composers. Enough said.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela