When impresario Ben Bagley created his fourth stage revue, The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter, in 1965, the composer/lyricist had only passed away six months before and had gone into a kind of eclipse. Long before New York City Center Encores!, Musicals in Mufti and Musicals Tonight!, the scores to his lesser shows which had not had Broadway or City Center revivals were largely forgotten.
Not so after this witty show with its 35 unfamiliar musical numbers which was an Off Broadway megahit for its time and helped revive the Porter canon. Eventually this new-found popularity led to Broadway revivals of Can-Can, Anything Goes, High Society, and Kiss Me, Kate, as well as Encores!’ revivals of Out of the World, DuBarry Was a Lady, Can-Can and The New Yorkers.
As part of its Fall 2019 Musicals in Mufti Cole Porter Series, The York Theatre Company has smartly revived this 1965 Ben Bagley – Cole Porter revue not seen in New York in 54 years. Pamela Hunt’s delightfully sophisticated production uses four talented performers at the height of their powers: Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina, Diane Phelan and Tony Award nominee Lee Roy Reams, with the estimable Eric Svejcar at the piano. Hunt has tweaked the show a bit eliminating five of the songs which have inappropriate lyrics for modern sensibility and handed Reams the role of speaking Bagley’s droll narration rather than dividing it up between the original five performers. Although the Muftis are performed concert style with book in hand, these performers appear to be letter perfect and hardly look at their sheet music.
Reams’ narration gives historic and biographical information for the period 1917 – 1944 when the world was spinning out of control, the decline and fall referred to in the title. The songs stretch from Porter’s first Broadway show, See America First, up to Seven Lively Arts, his last World War II musical. Although James Morgan’s stage set is minimal, Jamie Goodwin’s projection design adds evocative documentary footage that enhances the songs and the time period. Choreographer Trent Kidd adds excellent dances for many of the musical numbers, including fast-paced tap dancing. The uncredited costumes and props include a huge orchid corsage and two red feather boas.
Each of the performers has been given the material at which they are most accomplished. Aside from the narration, Reams sings mainly patter songs in the sung-spoken style of Noel Coward or Rex Harrison in “I’m a Gigolo” (Wake Up and Dream, 1929) and “Thank You So much, Mrs. Lowsborough-Goodby” (cut from Anything Goes, 1934), a paean to the terrible weekend house-party to end all invitations. His also gets to sing the merry and upbeat “I’m in Love Again (Greenwich Village Follies of 1924) and “Experiment” (Nymph Errant, 1933). He channels Sophie Tucker in her bouncy Leave It to Me (1938) showstopper, “Tomorrow,” and later gives us a bit of Marlene Dietrich’s drawl in “The Laziest Gal in Town” (written in 1927, sung in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright.)
Molina gets all of the torch-style songs sung with deep commitment: “I Loved Him (But He Didn’t Love Me)” (Wake Up and Dream, 1929), “Make it Another Old-Fashioned Please” (Panama Hattie, 1949), and “Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor” (Red, Hot and Blue!, 1936). She also shows her range with the cynical “I’m Unlucky at Gambling (And I’m Unlucky in Love)” and the art song parody, “The Tale of the Oyster” (both from Fifty Million Frenchmen, 1929).
Gardner expertly sings and hoofs his way through (tap dancing, soft shoe and ballroom) such songs as “I’ve A Shooting Box in Scotland” (See America First, 1917), “At Long Last Love” (You Never Know, 1938), and dancing with a music stand à la Fred Astaire in “I’ve Got You on My Mind” (The Gay Divorce, 1932). With Phelan he brings down the house in the risqué “But in the Morning, No!” (DuBarry Was A Lady, 1939) with its multiple double-entendres.
High soprano Phelan makes glorious music in a series of duets with Molina in “Most Gentleman Don’t Like Love” (Leave It to Me, 1938), “Leader of a Big Time Band,” “Something for the Boys” and “I’m In Love with a Soldier Boy” (all three from Porter’s W.W. II musical, Something for the Boys). As a solo, she performs a sensational “I Happen to Like New York” (The New Yorkers, 1930), as well as the Beatrice Lillie specialty number, “When I Was a Little Cuckoo” (Seven Lively Arts, 1944).
While most of the songs are presented in solos or duets, several numbers bring more of the company together. Phelan, Molina and Gardner open the second act with a rousing “Ridin’ High” (Red, Hot and Blue!, 1936). The hilarious celebrity name-dropping number “Farming” (Let’s Face’s It, 1941) is presented by the entire company, props including Molina peering through a lorgnette and Gardner carrying a gigantic hoe. Surprisingly, DuBarry Was a Lady’s “Well, Did You Evah?” sung by Reams and Gardner fails to register but it may be competing with our memories of the Bing Crosby/Frank Sinatra version in MGM’s High Society (1956). However, this is amply corrected in the fabulous final fast-paced medley in which the men compete in counterpoint with the women with a slew of famous Porter songs that everyone will recognize.
The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter (through October 20, 2019)
Musicals in Mufti Fall 2019: Cole Porter Series
The York Theatre Company, in association with Riki Kane Larimer
Theater at Saint Peter’s 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit http://www.yorktheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission