Photos courtesy of ICT. Left to right: Jennifer Shelton, Lindsey Alley, Marc Ginsburg with Brian Baker on piano.
To say that Cole Porter is a household name to anyone with a love of American music from the bygone era (1920’s-1940’s) is an understatement.
To say that he was one of the most talented songwriters of all time comes a little bit closer to the point: Porter wrote numerous musicals and hundreds of songs over the course of his life, many of which have transcended the world of Broadway and have made their way into the popular culture of our time.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was responsible for not only the music but also the lyrics of his compositions, a fact that has made him an American institution. At any jazz concert or cabaret show, you are likely to hear at least one of his songs.
Porter was responsible for such popular tunes as: “Night and Day,””Begin the Beguine,””Anything Goes,””I Get a Kick Out of You,””I’ve Got You Under My Skin,””My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” and many others. He could write comedic patter songs, show-stopping crowd-pleasers, and heartbreaking ballads all seemingly as easy as you or I could butto-up a shirt. His melodies are accessible but sneaky, never quite going where you would expect them to while his lyrics are some of the most subversive, suggestive, playful, and sexy ever to be set to song.
One can see how on paper, a new musical fashioned from the accumulation of many of his most popular songs can sound like a good idea, and I would like to say that the mere pleasure of hearing so many wonderful songs in an evening is reason enough to celebrate. Unfortunately though, the current production of Let’s Misbehave, currently making its west coast premiere at the Center Theater in Long Beach and staged by ICT, is proof that just because Cole Porter’s songs still have a lot of life left in them, doesn’t mean that they should all be crammed into a single evening’s worth of theater.
Let’s Misbehave is essentially a “juke box” musical that features more than 30(!?) Cole Porter songs over the course of its two-hour, two-act run time. “Juke box” refers to a musical with a book and a plot fashioned to fit pre-existing musical material (Mamma Mia!, Rock of Ages, Moulin Rouge…) rather than a musical shaped from the ground-up with songs written to accommodate the progression of plot, character and concept (Oklahoma, West Side Story, RENT). As you can assume, trying to create a plot that accommodates pre-existing material is not an easy task and usually with a juke box show, the plot comes off feeling like a contrived skeleton to hang the songs upon. With shows like Mamma Mia! or Rock of Ages, the campy quality of not only the plot but the material itself makes the shows more enjoyable, due to the fact that the material doesn’t take itself too seriously. Let’s Misbehave, on the other hand, goes so far as to bill itself as “A New Cole Porter Musical,” a misleading subtitle and the first of many suggestions that this show isn’t in on its own contrivances.
Jennifer Shelton and Lindsey Alley.
The story focuses on the lives of three friends—one male, two females—in 1930’s Manhattan. After a party at one of their apartments, the friends make a pact over a copious amount of cocktails to fall in love individually by July 4th. Shortly after the pact is made, both women discover they have feelings for the man involved in their friendly trio and the three of them must figure out how to overcome their predicament.
This is practically the entire plot.
I have managed to reveal everything except for who ends up with who and it’s only taken me two sentences. Imagine stretching this out with 30 plus songs and you’ll start to see why the event proves difficult. Even songs as wonderful as those included in Let’s Misbehave can’t keep the slightness of its plot afloat. The story does Porter’s songs little justice. Luckily, the cast does.
In the midst of all of this are three very talented performers, who all try their best to make sense out of the material they’ve been given. Marc Ginsburg plays Walter, the only male of the cast, and his clear and nuanced singing voice make his character charming in spite of the fact that he is a totally unbelievable starving artist (more the book and the director’s fault than his own). When Marc sings “Night and Day,” you believe everything he’s saying. A fact that made me long for a show filled with more sincerity than is on display here. Unfortunately as well, most of the time Walter’s character is a total ham, having to deliver lines like:
Alice: You left your keys?
Walter: No, my heart. A fate I would not wish on any actor.
As Alice, Jennifer Shelton adds a great deal of class and sophistication to the show, but while she seems well adept to evoke Porter’s classic sophistication, there is no denying the fact that her color blind casting seems a little off. This is not to say that I refuse to believe that African-Americans were friends with upper class whites in the New York of the 1930’s, but that this is never even acknowledged by any of the cast at any point in time seems misguided. There must be some subtext somewhere in this show that this could be played up for a moment. If not, maybe some should have been made in the staging. Pretending it is not a factor at all is bizarre and adds to the list of confusing inconsistencies on display here. Regardless, Jennifer delivers her patter song “Let’s Not Talk About Love” with gusto and has a subtle vulnerability that make her ballads ring truthful and bittersweet.
Jennifer Shelton, Marc Ginsburg, and Lindsey Alley.
It is Lindsey Alley’s Dorothy, however, that is the greatest blessing of the evening. Lindsey has gifted comedic timing and a pure-toned belt that would make anyone’s ears perk up, but in a show as uneven as Let’s Misbehave, she is a shining beacon of light. When Lindsey sings alone, the rest of what is happening around her seems to disappear—and for a few moments it doesn’t really matter about anything but the song and her voice. With the brassy “Primitive Man” in act one and the gorgeous “So in Love” in act two, Lindsey steals the show from not only this current production, but also the source material itself. Lindsey deserves a real Cole Porter musical and I’m sure she will find her way into one soon hereafter.
At the end of the day, a mediocre play can be saved (at least somewhat) by a top notch production and there are surely some handsome elements in the ICT’s production. The set by JR Bruce and sound design by Dave Mickey—both resident designers—are perfection, as is the lighting by Donna Ruzika. The costumes by Kim DeShazo are serviceable, though I don’t understand how or why Walter, a so-called “struggling artist,” is dressed just as swankily as his two upper class lady friends.
Todd Nielsen is a talented director. He has a long list of accolades to his name and I have seen work by him first hand that I thought was very good, such as last year’s emotionally resonant Master Class at the ICT. It is very confusing then that I feel his direction of Let’s Misbehave is just as uneven as the material it supports. Surely, Mr. Nielsen is dealing with threadbare source material, but it is a director’s job to make sense out of things or to at least attempt to make as many elements work as possible. I found Mr. Nielsen’s direction both sloppy and inconsistent, often adding confusion instead of insight to an already spotty whole.
I already mentioned the questionable color-blind casting and the finely dressed broke artist conundrum, but these are minor issues when placed against the others. The piano music that supports the singers on stage is provided by the shows music director, Brian Baker, and while he does a fine job playing all of the songs on display here, the muddled device of his existence inside the world of the play is wildly inconsistent and confusing. Sometimes the characters address him as though he is there in real life, accompanying their songs as a hired party pianist. Especially when the characters sing songs that are soliloquies he is still there at the piano accompanying them, somehow transported with them into their private thoughts.
The inconsistency of what songs are “sung aloud” and which songs exist inside of a character’s head is also an issue that hurts the action of the play, affecting not only the piano player situation but also the clarity of the plot and action happening between the play’s three characters. In addition to these issues, characters sing about making old fashioned cocktails but don’t know how to make them and ask for help with carrying travel books only to return with 5 books between the two of them, minor issues when isolated, bigger issues when piled up on top of each other. This general lack of attention to detail is generally the most frustrating about this show and ultimately, the thing that keeps it from exceeding it’s shortcomings.
Let’s Misbehave opens up the ICT’s 29th season and despite any of my issues with the structure of this piece, if you are a Cole Porter fan, you will likely have a great time with this show. Many audience members at the performance I attended seemed totally entranced by the production and I could see many people around me singing along to all of the wonderful music on display.
With any ICT performance, there is something to enjoy and Let’s Misbehave is no exception to that rule. I only wish at the end of the day that they had chosen to mount any of Cole Porter’s classic, pre-existing musicals than this “new” one that tries to be all of them at the same time. Luckily for all of us, his legacy is no where near running out. There will be more De-lovely evenings to come. I can promise you that much.