After all has been said and sung in the York Theatre’s revival of the long-titled “The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter,” the four delightful cast members finish with a medley of Porter songs not included earlier. The medley provides fresh astonishment at how many songs the amazingly prolific Porter wrote. The finale was the icing on the cake in the two-act potpourri performed with ultra-charming finesse.
The show (October 12-20) is part of the York's “Musicals in Mufti” series, which this time around is honoring Porter (1891-1964). The first concert version was “Fifty Million Frenchmen” (September 28-October 6—See Search for review), and the third coming up is “Panama Hattie” (Oct. 26-November 3).
“The Decline and Fall…” is a revival of the musical originally created and directed by Ben Bagley (1933-1998) that was staged off-Broadway in 1965, a year after Porter’s death. It starred Kaye Ballard. As Charles Wright reports in the York’s program notes: “The rest of the opening night cast consisted of Carmen Alvarez, William Hickey, and Elmarie Wendel. In the course of the revue’s 273-performance run, various performers cycled in and out, and Bagley tweaked the material to suit newcomers’ strengths. The show also had long engagements in San Francisco and Washington, D. C., with Tammy Grimes headlining the national tour.”
The York’s staging in its customary Mufti concert form has been directed with plenty of show biz pizzazz by Pamela Hunt, with music direction by Eric Svejcar, who also sizzles at the piano as a one-man orchestra.
Lee Roy Reams, who has a long theater career, suavely serves as narrator, reading from a script and at times taking over as a performer, excelling in “I’m a Gigolo” from “Wake up and Dream” (1929), “Little Skipper from Heaven” (1936 “Red, Hot and Blue!”), “Thank You So Much, Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby” (cut from the 1934 “Anything Goes”) and other songs as well, solo and in combination. One can especially appreciate Reams when he slips into his hilarious Sophie Tucker demeanor. Reams clearly has the Porter sophistication nailed down.
A dynamic force in the revue is provided by Danny Gardner, who is the very definition of a song and dance man. He sings with charm and dances with skill and charisma, whether it’s tap, soft shoe or ballroom, and he has choreographed his own steps as well as the various dance routines. Gardner starts off the revue dynamically with “I’ve a Shooting Box in Scotland” (1917 “See America First”), and the personality and pace he establishes doesn’t let up throughout.
“The Decline and Fall…” is blessed with two terrific actresses, Lauren Molina and Diane Phelan, each with her own strengths and both with superb and rangy voices. What’s interesting is that being of a generation far removed from the Porter era, they are nonetheless able to tune into what made Porter’s songs especially witty and urbane, with his whimsical way of looking at the world and society.
Molina establishes her comic ability early with the 1927 “Hot House Rose.” She does a knockout rendition of “I Loved Him (But He Didn’t Love Me”)” from 1929 “Wake Up and Dream” and scores again with the wistful “The Tale of the Oyster” (1929 “Fifty Million Frenchmen"). Molina is able to be funny in one moment, romantic in another, often concluding with a high-pitched sustained note, and she oozes likability.
Phelan has a leading lady musical quality that shines in multiple ways. She excels with the punchy “I Happen to Like New York” (1930 “The New Yorkers”), the sadly romantic “After You, Who?” (1932 “Gay Divorce”) or the playful “When I Was Little Cuckoo” (1944 “Seven Lively Arts”). She has a thrilling soprano voice and delivers numbers with commanding stage presence.
There is graceful teamwork throughout under Hunt’s direction, as the four shift into various positions and move about with their sliding music stands. I counted 29 Porter songs spread over the two acts, and that’s not including the medley finale.
Behind all of Porter’s productivity was the very human side of what he had to endure. As Wright says in his program note: “Porter’s life was profoundly affected by a horseback riding accident in his mid-forties. For the rest of his days, he endured numerous surgeries and frequent physical setbacks (including eventual amputation of his right leg). He died at 73, leaving a legacy of witty, often effervescent songs that belied the constant pain of his final decades.”
Thanks to the York Theatre we have the opportunity to savor a hefty helping from that legacy with this revived revue so deftly and elegantly performed. At Theater at Saint Peter’s, 54th Street East of Lexington Avenue. Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed October 14, 2019.