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Break a Leg 

Humanity still rhymes with urbanity.

But not like it did in the glittering 1920s. That distant era was speeding away from the horrors of World War I with an insouciance that's hard for us to grasp. Of course, it was headed for further horrors. But how attractive the bittersweet, reckless style of the day seems to us now.

We are moved by echoes of it in the songs of Cole Porter. Not that he only wrote in the '20s. He didn't die until 1964, and he was churning out tunes to near the end. But somehow the earlier decade marked him -- or maybe it's just more accurate to say, he marked it.

He has marked us, his descendants, as well. I realized this as I sat enjoying Getting a Kick Out of Cole at Le Chat Noir. The audience could have sung along with most of Porter's charming ditties. They are a part of us. Isn't it funny that songs meant to amuse "that smart set" feel so natural. The only explanation is that they really are so natural.

Porter, no doubt, worked harder at getting his creations right than he let on. But for many of his early days, he galavanted around Europe rather than trying to wedge his way into the competitive world of Broadway. He would just as soon write songs and play them for his friends after an afternoon sunning on the beach at the Lido or taking a cruise down the Rhine.

For one thing, unlike most composers, he was not driven by financial need. His rich grandfather footed the bills for his hedonism and later left him an inheritance of a million dollars.

Not only did Porter amuse himself far from Broadway, but he was almost dragged into his success by producers who tracked him down to work with them.

But more about the amazing Mr. Porter later.

Getting a Kick Out of Cole was simplicity itself. And it was a delight. The stage was painted black. Music director Jefferson Turner sat at a baby grand. Behind the piano, Brian Albus spiced things up rhythmically with his drum set, not infrequently using a tom-tom sound.

Banu Gibson, Ricky Graham and Sheelah Strong Black performed the show. Mostly, they sang away, but they also varied things here and there with hats, canes and dance routines.

Of course, the ensemble could only do a selection of the more than 1,000 songs Porter tossed off. Nonetheless, it was amazing to realize how many classics were included -- from the naughty "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" to the yearning "Just One Of Those Things."

Porter had a diabolical wit and playfulness when it came to his lyrics. Maybe I'm suffering from "lowbrow" fatigue, but my heart leapt with couplets like: "I feel so swellfish / so Elsa Maxwell-ish"

As one might expect, the ensemble threw in some local references. For instance, we learned that: "William Jefferson, for a prank, / made his ice box a piggy bank." And we were told: "Authors who once knew better words / now only use four letter words ... / like Chris Rose. / Anything goes!"

I suppose part of the pleasure of the show -- in addition to the great songs -- came from the pleasure that these buoyant performers took in each other's company and in entertaining us. Banu Gibson directed and choreographed. Ricky Graham (who recently won Entertainer of the Year at the Big Easy Theatre Awards) gave her an assist. Su Gonczy (who won a Big Easy for best lighting design) did the lighting and Jason Knoblock did the sound.

Since Getting a Kick is a tribute to Cole Porter and depends on his music, I wanted to mention one last, distressing and revealing detail about his life.

In 1937, Porter -- that glamourous bon vivant and man-about-town -- went for a horseback ride at a friend's Long Island estate. He fell off, and the horse fell on top of him, breaking both his legs and causing severe neurological damage. Doctors tried to correct things. After more than 30 operations over the course of 20 years, however, they finally had to amputate one leg. Nonetheless, Porter kept writing songs -- songs that were catchy and elegant. Would you ever have guessed at his suffering from any of the music?

Maybe the secret of the '20s, of Tin Pan Alley in general and of Porter's music in particular is "escape." And maybe the show worked so well because that's just what we long for now.

click to enlarge Banu Gibson, Sheelah Strong Black and Ricky Graham lead a - feel-good swing through Cole Porter's songbook.
  • Banu Gibson, Sheelah Strong Black and Ricky Graham lead a feel-good swing through Cole Porter's songbook.


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