Tunesmithery


The logic behind Porterphiles, the York Theatre Company's revue of unpublished Cole Porter songs, is considerably fuzzier, although it celebrates a master of lucidity and painstaking craftsmanship. Porter's stature as an artist grows higher with each year; he is neck and neck with his friend Irving Berlin for the title of America's greatest songwriter. The York, which specializes in musicals and is one of many small nonprofit companies at a thin edge financially these days, has had the idea of mining Porter's extensive archive of forgotten songs and cutouts for the score of an intimate three-person revue. The archive has already been mined heavily, but Porter's combination of natural talent and professionally honed skill was so great that there are good things to be found even at the bottom of his barrel; when all else fails, you can admire his determination to work out as exactingly as possible even his least promising ideas.

The York's "unpublished" criterion is a slippery one, since some of the show's better songs—and one or two of its worst—are familiar from recordings, and in some cases even from previous revues; they just happen not to have struck his publishers as having much chance in the sheet-music market. (The show does make a musicological contribution: Its musical director, Judy Brown, has gone through the Porter archive matching up lyric sheets for which the music was thought to be lost with unidentified tunes from the music manuscripts. Her "marriages" probably won't raise Porter's stature any higher, but work well enough.) Among the show's best selections are "The Extra Man," in its jauntily rueful way one of the most moving songs Porter ever wrote, and "I Wrote a Play," a name-dropping piece of showbiz satire that ranks among his wittiest. There's also "Just Another Page in Your Diary," a raucous double-entendre lovers' quarrel, and "It Was Great Fun the First Time," an emotional roller coaster, cut from Kiss Me, Kate in pre-production, that made people sitting near me murmur "Sondheim" in startled appreciation. Only the last of these, though, is any sort of surprise to a knowledgeable Porter addict, and few of the show's real surprises are as pleasant. One of the show's quirks, maybe with pedagogical intent, is to pick songs that show Port's thrift in reusing material: The equally obscure song that replaced "Just Another Page" in Leave It to Me carries over its compact verse; people familiar with Out of This World's "No Lover" will find the music of its bridge cropping up in two quite different numbers here.

Tommy Tune: imperfect holiday presence
photo: Howard Schatz
Tommy Tune: imperfect holiday presence

Details

Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails
Little Shubert Theatre
422 West 42nd Street
212-239-6200

Porterphiles
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
York Theatre at St. Peter's
619 Lexington Avenue, at 54th Street
212-239-6200

But whatever the material's virtues and flaws, you probably shouldn't be encouraged to discover them at the York because, to put it simply, the show isn't very good. I've postponed delivering this piece of bad news partly because the excuse to talk about Porter songs was too tempting, but mostly because a lot of its limitations seem to come from the York's money troubles; even a tiny cast and next to no set seems to have stretched this theater's resources to the breaking point, which makes pronouncing any judgment seem a little unfair. Even within those threadbare circumstances, though, Brown's musicianship is solid but resolutely unexciting, while the young performers, except for Stephen Zinnato, are both musically and theatrically unthrilling, as is most of the staging. Some mildly amusing goofball business linking the first act finale, "Tequila," to the second act opening, "Coffee," is as good an idea as the evening offers. The York has done better than this before, and I don't doubt that, with money to provide a little breathing room, they could do better again. It might be nice if the people who spent so much putting Tommy Tune's act together would offer them some, especially since their "Musicals in Mufti" series has an important string of staged readings coming up shortly.

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