183. LOVE, LINDA: THE LIFE OF MRS. COLE PORTER
Poster outside the York Theatre, on E. 54th St.
A glitch that I discovered on Friday forced me to reschedule a matinee performance yesterday for the evening (I’d accidentally scheduled two matinees), but the combination of 1) it being a last minute thing and 2) the dire weather forecast prevented me from finding a companion to go with me. The latter was probably the main reason, since the theatre was less than half filled and we were informed that 30 ticket holders were not coming. Given the age range of most of the people who accompany me to the theatre, it’s unlikely to have been because of the contents of the show, a revue at the York Theatre featuring the music of Cole Porter. Younger folks, like my granddaughters, might wonder, Cole who?, but for older generations Cole Porter remains a show biz legend whose classic songs, for which he wrote both music and lyrics, are among the greatest in the American songbook. And, although only 20 songs f Porter’s remarkable output are represented in the show (mostly in truncated versions), one never gets tired of hearing them.
Stevie Holland. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The show itself, LOVE, LINDA: THE LIFE OF MRS. COLE PORTER, however, is something else. Stevie Holland, a svelte, attractive jazz singer, with a stylish blonde bob and wearing a full-length, form-fitting black dress (designed by Pamela Dennis), stars as the title character. Ms. Holland co-wrote the show, which is essentially a cabaret act, with her husband, Gary William Friedman (who also did the arrangements). LOVE, LINDA is actually a revival, having been seen at the Triad in 2009. It has a new director, the acclaimed Richard Maltby, Jr., but there’s very little that’s fresh in it, and the 75-minute performance never rises above the level of being pleasantly entertaining.
LOVE, LINDA is structured like so many of its kind, with the star telling the story of her life and interspersing it with songs that, hopefully, have immediate relevance to the narrative (the connections here sometimes seem forced). Linda Lee Thomas Porter (1883-1954), a Kentucky heiress, apparently spoke with a southern accent, which is about the only overtly characterizing element in Ms. Holland’s friendly and sometimes slightly arch performance, with such occasional wisecracks as "The stakes were high and usually served medium rare." Aficionados are probably familiar with Cole Porter’s face, but how many, I wonder, would recognize Linda Porter’s if they saw it in a photograph? So, apart from people who’ve read biographies of her husband, most of us know little about this woman, unless we think we do because we saw Alexis Smith play a totally fictionalized version of her in the biopic NIGHT AND DAY, with, of all people, Cary Grant as the Indiana-born songwriter.
And, sorry to say, LOVE, LINDA reveals little about Linda Porter we didn’t already know—her acceptance of Cole’s homosexual inclinations and affairs (all she asked for was his discretion), the couple’s international high life in the 1920s and 1930s when they were “the toast of the town,” their life in Hollywood (which he loved and she hated), her ministering to Cole after the catastrophic fall from a horse that crushed his leg, their residence at the Waldorf-Astoria, the loss of her beauty (barely alluded to) because of the tobacco-inflicted emphysema that killed her (she suffered from a chronic cough but you’d never know it from this show). Based on Ms. Holland and Mr. Friedman’s name-dropping book, it would seem that there’s little to be learned about her personally apart from her being Porter’s wife, and it’s his achievements, not hers, that the show focuses on. The show might have benefited considerably from emphasizing the argument that Cole Porter could never have become so successful without Linda’s support, both emotionally and financially. We must settle merely for her assertion that she was his muse. Moreover, Linda Porter wasn’t even a singer, so why do a show in which the chief reason to watch a singer impersonating her is to hear her sing Porter’s songs?
Ms. Holland is engaging and polished, but she’s not in any way extraordinary or unique. Her acting is superficial and her material is almost always on the sunny side, so there’s really no opportunity for darker histrionics. We settle then for effective, but not particularly memorable renderings, of “So in Love,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “I Love Paris,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Let’s Do It,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “You Do Something to Me,” “Let’s Be Buddies,” “Ridin’ High,” “Love for Sale,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” and “Wunderbar,” with a few less well-known ones thrown in for good measure. A talented trio of musical director Christopher McGovern on piano, Danny Weller on bass, and Alex Wyatt on drums accompanies Ms. Holland.
I know many readers will start humming or singing some of these tunes as soon as they see their titles, but, apart from hearing them nicely sung on a stage smartly fashioned by James Morgan and nicely lit by Graham Kindred to suggest a swanky New York penthouse, there’s no compelling reason to rush to the York for LOVE, LINDA. A CD version (sold at the theatre but also online) is available for the Porter cognoscenti.