Friday, September 12, 2014

theatre review I GET A KICK OUT OF COLE, Theater Works, Sept. 6

Click here to read my review at Talkin' Broadway of I Get a Kick Out of Cole.

Roger K. Nelson, Steve Hilderbrand, Kathleen Berger, Dominik R. Rebilas, Marie Gouba, Van Katz, Alanna Kalbfleisch, Tony Blosser, Alberto Allende, Brenda Goodenberger, Ixy Utpadel and Ken Goodenberger 
Known for his lush music and lyrics that are both romantic and witty, American composer Cole Porter wrote a string of hit songs in the first half of the 20th century and found great success on Broadway as well as in Hollywood, writing dozens of scores for the stage and screen. While he is best known today for writing the music for Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate, he also composed a non-stop stream of songs that are part of the American Songbook, including many from his lesser known musicals such as "Night and Day," "Love for Sale," "True Love" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." With such a vast catalog of memorable songs, there have been numerous Cole Porter revues over the years and Theater Works in Peoria is presenting the premiere production of a fantastic new cabaret show entitled I Get a Kick Out of Cole.

Conceived by Steve Hilderbrand and Gary Gallner, with Hilderbrand also providing some excellent musical arrangements as well as the staging of the show, I Get a Kick Out of Cole is biographical in nature. Using about fifty of Porter's songs to comment upon his life, both the highs and the lows, the show is a virtual greatest hits collection of Cole's music with nine talented singers providing nicely varied voices to sing the songs and tell Porter's story.

Born in Indiana, then schooled at both Yale and Harvard, Porter moved to Paris after his first show flopped on Broadway. There he met older American socialite Linda Lee Thomas, whom he eventually married, even though he was gay. I Get a Kick Out of Cole touches upon all of these points as well as Porter's return to Broadway in the late 1920s with his first successful show, Paris, which featured "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love." This was followed by more shows, writing scores for Hollywood, and his first huge Broadway hit Anything Goes in 1934. While a serious horseback riding accident in 1937 that crushed both of his legs kept Porter wheelchair-bound for the remainder of his life, he still kept writing, with more scores for Broadway and Hollywood and in 1948, the Broadway smash Kiss Me, Kate before his death in 1964.

With a simple yet elegant set comprised of two descending staircases that surround an impressive jazz trio led by Hilderbrand on piano, the cast of nine, dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, sing the Porter songs and tell his story as if we are all guests at an elegant cocktail party in a large New York penthouse apartment. The sophisticated setting and finely detailed costumes by Tamara Treat work perfectly together, yet don't pull the focus away from Porter's life, lyrics and music.

All nine cast members are skilled vocalists and have no problem in navigating Porter's more tricky lyrics. A true ensemble piece, all nine have numerous moments to shine, both in solos, duets and full ensemble pieces, and, while there are many highlights in the show, here are some of my favorites: Marie Gouba delivers both "Down in the Depths" and "Make it Another Old Fashioned Please" with perfect diction, becoming the women in the songs and drawing out the meaning from the lyrics. Likewise, Kathleen Berger's "Love For Sale" is perfectly sung, with intense emotions. Her "I Love Paris" and "So in Love" include some lovely moments as well, with Berger's singing in her higher register quite effective.

Brenda Goodenberger delivers a smashing, comical take on Nymph Errant's "The Physician" as well as a funny snippet of Kiss Me, Kate's "I Hate Men." Alanna Kalbfleisch is a comic gem, with her humorous facial expressions perfectly complementing the humorous lyrics for both "Lost Liberty Blues" and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." She also provides some sexy choreographed movement, perfectly in sync with the drummer, for "I've Got You Under My Skin." Ixy Utpadel delivers a hilarious take on "Laziest Gal in Town," lazily leaning back against the piano at one point, but also sings a touching "True Love" from Porter's film score for High Society. Utpadel, Kalbfleisch and Goodenberger also provide lush harmonies on "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love."

Dominik R. Rebilas delivers winning versions of "Take Me Back to Manhattan;" "I'm a Gigolo," which receives a lovely jazzy arrangement; "Dream Dancing," with a nicely choreographed soft shoe moment; and a romantic "I Love You" that segues into a lovely moment with Gouba where they "Begin the Beguine." "I Worship You" gets a soulful rendition from Roger Nelson, and Tony Blosser sings a touching "At Long Last Love." Ken Goodenberger (Brenda's husband) delivers a forceful "I Happen to Like New York" and with his wife sings a spirited version of "It's De-Lovely" that includes some lyrics from the song that aren't often heard.

There are some excellent full ensemble numbers as well as an act one "swanky" New York party sequence that incorporates a parade of Porter songs, an upbeat sung entr'acte, and a winning sequence of Kiss Me, Kate songs. Berger also has a poignant solo take on "Every Time We Say Goodbye" that ends the evening with the entire company joining in a capella to deliver a beautiful moment of lush harmonies.

Hilderbrand's staging is quite effective, with efficient, varied use of the entire stage, the multiple entrances, and those long staircases. There are some nice touches throughout, including a simple yet effective one in "Too Darn Hot" where the women remove the men's red handkerchiefs to wipe their foreheads. Treat's gowns for the women include colorful ones in the first act, and sets of black and white ones in act two, as well as black tuxedos for the men in the first part and white ones toward the end. Tim Monson's lighting design is colorful and lush and fits perfectly with the moods of each song and sequence.

The three-piece band is superb, with Alberto Allende on string bass and Van Katz on drums both providing skilled playing and perfectly supporting Hilderbrand on the piano. Hilderbrand's arrangements fit perfectly with the period of the songs yet add modern touches to make the songs even more universal.

Just a couple of small quibbles—while the show's narration of Porter's life is presented chronologically, there is a slight glitch in the forward thrust of the show at one point. Porter's decision to go to work in Hollywood is talked about after we are told about his accident, but the accident happened two years later. Even though it is stated that the year he went to Hollywood was 1935, a little clarification would help in letting us know that he actually went West before he was wheelchair bound. Also, one song during that sequence, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," while sung by Mary Martin in a 1940 film, was actually originated by her in Porter's 1938 Broadway musical Leave It to Me. Clarifying the details of the narration would improve the accuracy of the show. Also, an earlier piece of narration that states that Porter was unlike his contemporaries Irving Berlin and the Gershwins, who were Jewish immigrants "exploiting their talents to escape the poverty of the lower East Side," seems a bit forceful, and somewhat inaccurate, in the use of the word "exploiting."

But those are just a few small details that can easily be fixed, as Hilderbrand and Gallner have conceived a thoroughly enjoyable, touching and effective way to honor the legacy of music of Porter and with a few small tweaks I could see this revue having a very long life. With fantastic arrangements and musical direction, a smoking trio of musicians, and a winning cast, to quote a famous Porter lyric, "what a swell party" I Get a Kick Out of Cole is.

I Get a Kick Out of Cole runs through September 28th, 2014, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 623 815-7930

Photo: Skye Fallon / Theater Works

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