Composer Cole Porter was a complicated man. He led an openly double life contentedly married to Linda Porter for decades while also having relationships with men. His song lyrics were complicated too, full of double entendres and so, so many words. The rise and fall of his career is laid out in glamorous detail in the play Red, Hot and Cole, produced by the Cherry Creek Theatre, running through February 19.
The show is held in its new home, the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, after six seasons at the Shaver-Ramsey Gallery in Cherry Creek North. The new location means ample free parking, comfortable seating and lots of restroom choices, a feature never to be underestimated, come intermission!
A cast of 10 performers play even more people, taking full advantage of the lovely set, with furniture extending into the audience. At one point, Cole Porter sits in the front row, among the audience, as Porter’s friends regale him (and by proximity, the audience) with song and dance. Characters move in and out of third-person narration and first person conversation, frequently breaking the fourth wall to talk to and touch an audience member. Porter’s songs are a character too, of course, since they not only shaped his life but often reflected it. Whimsy, dalliances, passion and love are there throughout his catchy and moving tunes that still hold up today, very well.
Had I not already seen the Kevin Klein-Ashley Judd movie, De-Lovely, I might not have understood all that was going on in this play. And even then, some of the plot twists were handled so briefly, that it was hard to follow. Graying of performers’ hair was sometimes the only indication that time had passed since the majority of actors did not change costume. The set changed only on the periphery, not always visible to the whole audience, which served to tell us we were now at the theater, or in someone’s home. While that wasn’t of much concern to me, I was conscious of how confusing some of the action and storyline might have been for those not so familiar with Porter’s story.
The set and costumes were lovely and felt authentic, even with a 40-plus time sweep. All of the performances were top-notch, especially Denver favorites, Lauren Shealy and Shannan Steele, playing Linda Porter and Irene Castle/Ethel Merman respectively. Olivia James played Bricktop, African-American cabaret owner and performer and great friend of the Porters. I only wish her wonderful voice had been amplified a little because it got lost at times, especially as she moved around and faced away from certain sections of the audience, seated in a U-shape around the stage. Jeremy Rill, as Cole Porter, was a great casting, able to portray all facets of Cole Porter’s complicated personality and story.
While many of Cole Porter’s most famous songs are in the musical, including “I Love Paris,” “You’re the Top,” “Begin the Beguine” and “In the Still of the Night,” many were not in the show including “Anything Goes” and “De-Lovely.” That’s okay because that means that newcomers to Porter’s music will have plenty to discover after the show.
If you’re a fan of Cole Porter and the music of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, go see this show. If you love the costumes, decor and sensibilities of this period, go see this show. If you love dancing, elegance and musicals, go see this show. And mostly, if you have no idea who Cole Porter is, nor what was so special about his music and the music of that era, go see this show! It’s an education, to be sure.