Cole Porter died in 1964 – well before my time. However, I’ve always had a thing for that era of music, and what (little) I’d heard of his work, I’d liked. I came across a flier for “an evening of Cole Porter” in a café and, as the theatre was nearby, decided to attend. I’m glad I did.
The York Musical Theatre Company put on their production of “It’s De-lovely” to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Porter’s death. Essentially, the evening was a loosely-structured run through of his music, from various different decades and musicals. There was dancing, and singing, and exciting costumes. It was exactly what I hoped it would be.
The theatre itself – the Joseph Rowntree Theatre – is tiny, although it has all the necessary parts. It possesses both a balcony and an orchestra pit, though the pit didn’t look as though it could fit much more than a quartet. Luckily, there were no over-crowding problems, as there seemed (I couldn’t see from my angle, but my companion insisted) to be only three musicians. I’ve been in small theatres before, and I’ve been in grand ones, but this was the first small grand one – despite its modest dimensions, it had a noticeable slope in the audience, and the proper number of complicated curtains, as well as a versatile lighting system.
The York Musical Theatre Company is a company of amateurs, with the women vastly outnumbering the men – I didn’t count precisely, but there seemed to be only five men, and around twenty women. It’s an imbalance you expect with musical and dramatic groups, but they handled it well – at no point did it seem that they needed more men. Throughout, their performance and organisation were fluid and professional – no awkward amateur fumblings or wooden acting.
To address the actual performance next, it was wonderful. The cast managed to portray a range of emotions with versatility and flair, from the anger of “I Hate Men” to the tender affection of the titular “It’s De-lovely”. Comic songs were mixed in with tragic or romantic ones, so the evening was not all on one note: the singers elicited the appropriate responses from the audience, and it didn’t, at any point, feel like it was dragging.
The choreography was likewise fantastic. Musical theatre requires both elements – it isn’t just standing and singing, or hamming up while out of tune. The performers danced, and gestured, and, when necessary, managed that trick (that I’m sure has a name) of being perfectly in time whilst acting as though they have no idea what they are doing – Daniel Radcliffe’s performance in this video is an example of what I mean: he is managing to dance whilst giving the impression that he is desperately learning the dance. Again, I’m sure it has a name, and I always find it incredibly impressive; when I dance, I can remember either the steps or the rhythm, but never both at once.
Of particular note amongst the songs was “Nobody’s Chasing Me”, a song that, when sung well, is absolutely hilarious. It was sung well. The singer managed to put just the right mix of acid, self-pity, and injured pride in her voice. I could list every song and say what I liked about it, but that would be tedious – suffice to say that I didn’t dislike any of them. My personal favourite was “Brush up your Shakespeare”, in which the lyrics are beautifully absurd
“If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ‘er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer,
And if still, to be shocked, she pretends well,
Just remind her that “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
When I began the evening, I knew that Cole Porter had written “Anything Goes”, a song I’ve always enjoyed. I discovered that he’d also written several other songs I was familiar with (“You’re the Top”, “I get a Kick out of You”, etc.), and a host I am glad to be becoming familiar with. He was an exceptional lyricist – every word falls perfectly into place, and you can see the punchlines building from a few lines away; I like songs where the language flows, and each single word slots in neatly. Poetry is supposed to be “the best words in the best order” and he does that – I never got the feeling, so common with songs and poems, that another word would have fitted more closely.
The evening ended with “Anything Goes”, probably one of the most familiar of his works. It was a good ending – everyone knew it, the entire cast was involved, tap-dancing featured. When it ended, the curtain fell to rapturous applause; one man tried a standing ovation, but everyone else was more statically appreciative. The curtain rose again for the encore – a heartbreaking rendition of “Ev’ry Time we say Goodbye” which devastated me. It was a total contrast to the flamboyance of “Anything Goes”, which made it doubly effective; no one expects to have their heartstrings tugged after the all-singing all-dancing finale.
It’s probably clear by now that I am not a particularly critical audience for this kind of thing – I like tunes I can whistle, I like lyrics that are neat, I enjoy sappy love songs and dancing. Most of all, my emotions can be played like a fiddle. I would happily watch musical theatre from any period (though particularly that one) forever. As such, I’m not an ideal reviewer: my formal training in music was short, my knowledge of dance non-existent, and I am just so excited by it all that everything seems perfect. A more sober reviewer, more familiar with the medium, would be more helpful in getting an objective judgement of the work – I can’t even attempt to do that.
What I can say is that I enjoyed it, hugely, and I will attend as many more things by the company as I can. I have woken up every morning since with “It’s De-lovely” in my head.