A charming, musically engaging production highlighting a sublime, halcyon era epitomized by Cole Porter songs provides a most appealing evening of entertainment at the Creative Cauldron. It is like a scenic jaunty drive through a lovely countryside full of sensuous curves and fluffy clouds with a beautiful soundtrack filling the air and your ears.
So many Porter songs are and remain classics and touch stones to multiple generations. No easy feat in an age of constantly changing tastes and formats.
"Cole Porter, You're the Top" is a romance-fueled homage to a Porter-painted luxe urban world. With big-voiced Helen Hayes Award recipient Carolyn Cole ("Hairspray") and the smoothness of Sean Thompson backed by a well-honed three-piece band led by pianist Alvin Smithson, this is a most easy-listening show. The production also intertwines a light-tasting bio of Porter (1891-1964) and his wife, Linda.
In an intimate setting conjured by Margie Jervis, an Arts Council of Fairfax County Strauss Fellowship recipient, the audience is in a swanky, penthouse apartment dominated by a faux grand piano, an arrangement of beautiful white flowers, an enormous round window that overlooks the outside world so far away. The band is hidden behind in a smallish alcove behind rust red hued sheer curtains.
But wait, we are not the audience at all. We are part of a late-night stardust infused party hosted by the Porters. We are in the midst of a gone-by nighttime in a timeless city where the champagne flows. We can look out through a large round window to see the dark sky punctuated by stars.
The production was created by co-directors Stephen Gregory Smith, who has appeared in many Signature Theatre productions including the recent "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas", and Laura Connors Hull, Creative Cauldron producing director. They set out to give a "glimpse into the deeply intertwined, but complicated lives of Cole and Linda Porter, and how their relationship was at times mirrored in the songs that Cole created." They succeeded.
In this smoothly moving show, singers Carolyn Cole and Sean Thompson take the audience through about two dozen of Porter's songs. Many are familiar classics, but the evening is far from just a hit parade. There are numerous little-known gems that make their way into the score.
Many songs selected from the Porter inventory of standards brought the audience to prick up their ears and give audible sighs of recognition. The patter between Cole and Thompson gave the audience a sense of who the Porters were and how they got to be what they became.
Some singing highlights included a duet in sweet harmony of "I Love Paris" that hit the mark with its line "because my love is there." The quiet meditation of "In the Still of the Night," as "my thoughts stray to you," and the effervescent "You're the Top!" with its smile-bringing "but if, baby, I'm the bottom, you're the top!" set high marks. There is the playful "Let's Misbehave," and the delicious Cole's renditions of "Give Him the Oo-La-La" and "Love for Sale" which fit her natural style of brassy physicality. Thompson's voice and smooth mannerism were in sync with his well-fitting tux, slicked-back hair and handsome demeanor, especially in the slower melodies that were his.
Cole is a powerful presence throughout the production in her retro attire — a black dress with chocolate brown flowers and sheer long sleeves. She is the power that pushes the evening forward. She sometimes appears as if her motor is running but stuck in neutral, reducing the power surge that is her natural state to meet the needs of the songs. Thompson's assured satin presence, his velvetiness were at times not sufficiently world-weary to project what was behind the lyrics.
One last quibble. The narrative history is so Cole Porter-centric that there is little sense of the outside world; mostly a time of depression and war. A time when one's sexual orientation, if made public, could end a career. These were glossed over. A bit of a sharper edge would have added some valuable weight.
"Cole Porter, You're the Top!" is a pleasure and a delight The audience is treated to the wit and sophistication of a musical master, Cole Porter, and two effective singers. The technical design sparkles, bringing out a world of elegance and quiet wealth.
You leave this quickly paced evening feeling as if you were all part of a gone-by, memory-tinged party. You were with the Porters and their gang. You were your own Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or George Gershwin and Kaye Swift. What a nice way to spend an evening.
Now really, who could ask for anything more.