Entertainment » Theatre

Ben Bagley's 'The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter'

by Rob Urbinati
Thursday Oct 17, 2019
The cast of The York's 'The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter.' Photo by Ben Strothmann.
The cast of The York's 'The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter.' Photo by Ben Strothmann.  

Nearly 100 years since he began writing music and lyrics, Cole Porter is still in a class by himself. His countless standards have lost none of their luster, and are a vital part of the "Great American Songbook," covered year after year by nearly every style of vocalist. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the less-remembered songs from his many Broadway productions are as impeccable as his hits.

But only two of Porter's many shows are ever revived — "Anything Goes" and "Kiss Me, Kate" — and the reason is simple: the librettos are silly. Take "Something For The Boys," his World War II musical in which Ethel Merman discovers that her molar fillings can receive radio signals, allowing her to save airplanes in danger. Consequently, Porter aficionados are treated to a continuous supply of revues created by artists eager to exploit his vast output.

Premiering in 1965, Ben Bagley's "The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter," is a sassy, tuneful revue of obscure Porter tunes linked by a mostly chronological, tongue-in-cheek narration commenting on the social history of American in the decades between the wars. Bagley was a musical theatre enthusiast whose revues — and many albums — featured lesser-known work by major composers and lyricists. "Decline and Fall..." is a treasure trove of such Porter gems.

Compatible with Bagley's modest productions, which include "The Shoestring Revue" and "Shoestring Revue '57," the York Theatre's "Musicals in Mufti" series presents little-known material in intimate concert readings. While not all the York's Mufti productions originally featured small casts (they recently presented "Fifty Million Frenchmen," one of Porter's first full scale musicals, and his "Panama Hattie" premieres next week), the intimacy of Bagley's "Decline and Fall..." which initially featured five actors, is ideally suited to Mufti treatment. As is the York's wont, the cast is reduced to four.

Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina, Diane Phelan and Lee Roy Reems are given the enviable opportunity to perform thirty Porter tunes, and they take full advantage of it. Reems is the wry, amiable narrator who slips into impersonations of Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Sophie Tucker, and sings a few songs, most notably, an amusingly world-weary "I'm A Gigolo." Gardner, a charming tenor and terrific dancer, has the most material, and shines effortlessly throughout. He gives "I've a Shooting Box in Scotland" a light comic touch, and "At Long Last Love" a genuinely felt sincerity. Molina is a gifted comedienne with a powerful belt she puts to good use in "I'm Unlucky at Gambling" and "Hot House Rose." Phelan is poised, with a clear soprano, and her slow build on "I Happen To Like New York" is one of the production's many highlights.

Director Pamela Hunt redistributes the material effectively, and maintains a sprightly tone throughout. There are a bunch of winning duets, including Gardner and Phelan's naughty "But In The Morning, No," the playfully dismissive "I've Got You On My Mind," ("You're not so hot, you - but I've got you on my mind), and "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love," Molina and Phelan's savvy advice to the ladies ("So just remember when you get that glance, a romp and a quickie are all little dickie means when he mentions romance"). The full company has a ball with the celebrity-strewn lyrics of "Farming," and their lovely harmonies make "Let's Fly Away" soar.

The Musical Director and sole accompanist is the enthusiastic Eric Svejar, who also joins the cast in song. Trent Kiss provides the lively, varied choreography, and the satisfying period projections — one for each song — are by Jamie Goodwin.

There are a few missteps, both in the source material and the production. Bagley's 20-song medley, which ends the show, is frantic and perfunctory, and the York production leans a bit too often on shtick and innuendo, with Porter's passion and poignancy given short shrift. The Muftis rehearse for 30-hours, and as a result, some lyrics are missed, mispronounced or replaced, and a few of the specialty numbers Bagley gave to his stars are not suited to the York performers.

But with a few stools and rolling music stands — and a strong cast — York Theatre's Mufti production of "The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter" is sweet, suave and satisfying, and serves up the peerless Porter's considerable gifts on a platter.

"The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter"at the York Theatre Company, 619 Park Avenue, New York, NY. For more information, visit the York Theatre Company website.

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