In the vogue of mini-musicals devoted to songwriters - such as Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Arlen and the Gershwins - two ingredients generally are lacking: the character of the composer and those lead-in verses which are as special as their familiar choruses.
Here, in the 200-seat Barksdale Theater of a tavern built in 1723, some relative unknowns are filling these gaps in a sparkling revue, "Red, Bot and Cole!" Resourceful writing, James Bianchi's compelling performance as Cole, and inclusion of the crisp verses which preceed Porter's most popular show-stoppers, create the most satisfying revue in a spate which has been hitting London, New York, Washington and points west.
Disdaining the graceless, pseudoanalytical tone of the latest Porter biography (but not avoiding complexities tactfully ignored in his screen biography "Night and Day," with Cary Grant), this script by grandy Strawderman, Bianchi and Muriel McAuley dramatizes Porter's personal tragedy to fine effect. In 1937 both of Porter's legs were crushed in a riding accident. For the 27 years until he died, the composer and lyricist was in pain. His right leg was amputated 21 years after the event.
While the first act reflects the glittery travels of Porter and his wife and songs associated with places and contemporaries, Act II probes and the composer's personality after the accident. The result is that, for the first time in these song-parade salutes, one feels one knows the composer through both his life and work. Bianchi never overdoes the pathos in this affecting portrait.
The story centers on a continuous party over the years in Europe and America. Time goes forward and backward, real-life characters moving in and out of time. Where New York's "Unsung Cole," London's "Oh, Mr. Porter" and Ben Bagley's "The Rise and Fall of the World Through the Eyes of Cole Porter" seemed to avoid the great Porter hits in favor of neglected songs, "Red, Hot and Cole!" uses many of the major ones with their neglected verses, even parodies as well.
The trio shows canny use of detailed research, making literally scores of right choices. Anecdotes from George Eells, Brendan Gill and Lehman Engel ring with authentiicity to enrich character. The Cole Porter Musical and Literary Trust, headed by John Wharton, should be highly gratified: This is the Cole Porter parade which had eluded earlier compilers.
With Strawderman, as choreographer and principal dancer, the company of 14 has some marvelous moments: Debbie Joyce and Strawderman dancing "Begin the Beguine;" Burt Edwards as a butler doing "Miss Otis Regrets;" Tye Heckman cowboy-stepping to "Don't Fence Me In"; Nancy Kilgore in a "Tomorrow" antedating "Annei's" of the like title, and Steve Boschen's "Who Said Gay Paree?" two of the less familiar genre.
The trio of bass, percussion and piano is led by Dougee Zeno, of the Randolph-Macon chorus, a lady who knows every shade of this witty, sophisticated composer.
Performances are Wednesday through Saturday nights at 8:30, with dinner available elsewhere in the building. Reservations may be necessary.