There’s an effortless chronology underpinning London Toast Theatre’s new musical ‘Oh Baby – It’s Cole’, which is playing at the Krudttønden theatre almost every day until June 1.
Telling the life of celebrated American composer Cole Porter – charting his path from unhumble beginnings in Indiana and then at Yale, through the Roaring 20s via Paris to Broadway successes in the 1930s and 40s – creator Vivienne McKee has crafted a seamless tribute to one of the entertainment world’s true geniuses.
The overall result is worthy of a much bigger theatre!
Like an evening with old friends
Most musicals don’t miss that trick; it’s all about bums on seats. A glance at the theatre landscape of London reveals they are absolutely dominating at the moment, but only a privileged few get to be as close to the action as the audience at Krudttønden.
Every throbbing vein and bead of sweat is on full view. It’s a highly intimate experience sitting there – by the end of the performance, there’s a sense you’ve really shared something with the performers, instead of just watching a spectacle from afar.
It’s no exaggeration to say you part company as friends – with plenty of applause, of course.
Two sassy ladies
As you would expect from a musical depicting this era, the leading ladies, Katrine Falkenberg and Nicoline Siff Møller, bring plenty of panache and sass.
Falkenberg, a veteran of eleven Crazy Christmas Cabarets since 2006, had the edge in the showstoppers – her turn as the Statue of Liberty shunned a caricaturist approach in favour of naturalism, and the result was affirmably classy and disarmingly funny.
Møller showed great versatility in an array of roles, transforming from Porter’s wife to Hollywood starlet and back again in the time it takes to put on a pair of shades. As well as laughter, she brought the show poignancy when it needed it – and the balance was pretty much spot on throughout.
Men in strong support
Sebastian Harris in the role of Cole Porter embodied the gaiety and instinctive genius of ‘the man who can’, but the production sensibly avoided trying to depict him as Salieri in his later life. Like Mozart, his music will live on forever, and his eternal youthfulness shone on until the end.
In most of his numbers, Harris was joined by Welsh baritone Leo Andrew, a veteran of London’s West End who confirmed his pedigree with a charmingly comedic rendition of Noel Coward performing his somewhat saucier version of ‘Let’s Do It’. The richness of his tones were not lost on the appreciative audience.
Evening with the stars
Coward wasn’t the only VIP to make an appearance. Andrew also brought us Fred Astaire, with Falkenberg gracefully stepping into Ginger Rogers’ shoes, despite her partner’s best efforts to step on them.
All of this was made possible by McKee’s script. Evocative of the era, it was brimful with detail and ultimately light-hearted, choosing not to overly dwell on the tragic accident in 1937 that led to Porter living the final three decades of his life in pain.
The Stanislavski approach
As the narrator, McKee did a great job at fashioning a natural delivery as if the words were coming to her as she spoke them. It was straight-out Stanislavski!
It quickly endeared her to an audience already enamoured with her thanks to four decades of the Crazy Christmas Cabaret, and in the intimate confines of the theatre she established a strong rapport for the whole cast to feed off.
Her performance of ‘The Laziest Girl in Town’ was a delight. Riotously funny as the sozzled slush, it was a reminder of the sex appeal that has endured her entire career.
Reviewing a brand-new musical, or even play, presents a problem to a reviewer. Should they only be critiquing the performance … or also the script?
In this regard, it’s questionable whether the 95-minute running time needed a break – possibly after the success of ‘Anything Goes’.
This didn’t immediately derail the production in any way, but three-quarters of the way through there was a definite lull: three to four numbers that did little to further the narrative.
Never mind Cole Porter’s legs, what about Stuart Goodstein’s fingers on the piano. As the musical director, his arrangements were never flabby and he did a stunning job.
A special mention should also be made of McKee’s trusted costume and set designer Kirsten Brink, who chose to invest more of her creativity in the ladies’ dresses than the wisely minimalist but classy stage. Falkenberg and Møller can clearly dress as fast as they do the Charleston.
Impossible to resist her passion
On the evidence of this show, who can keep up with McKee when it comes to creating original work, understanding what audiences want and delivering with panache.
Her passion for the subject matter really comes through, and this show will no doubt convert many more of us into Cole Porter enthusiasts.