"Cole" is the ninth revue put together by the Off the Circle Theater Company for its American composers series, and while you might expect it to be one of the best--Cole Porter having written what he wrote--it's not. It is, in fact, often forced and frantic.
Up to now what has been appealing about the Off the Circle format is the absence of frills. With little fuss and a lot of straight-forward zest, a few young singers have been making their way lightly through various composers' repertories. Maybe a prop or two found its way on stage and a dance step was occasionally tried. But singing, pure and simple, was the game.
However, with "Cole," which is housed at Columbia Station for a six-week run, the props have begun to accumulate and the staging gimmicks have multiplied. Director Fredric Lee has fallen into the trap of illustrating songs that demand no illustration.
For example, let Annette Lowman, who has a voice capable of demolishing Jericho's walls, harness that voice to "Find Me a Primitive Man." The lyrics are dandy on their own, and Lowman, a hefty woman, looks as if she could take care of them with no trouble. But what happens? Mid-song, Anthony Brienza, dressed as a cave man in fake leopard, bounds on stage to flex his muscles, roll his eyes, thump his chest and act, well, primitive. The song is not allowed to fend for itself; it's been turned into a comic strip panel.
In the course of the evening, American flags, silly hats, a bass drum, a stethoscope, a tongue depressor and a cream pie, among other items, are pressed into service, and right in the middle of "It's Delovely," a doll is pitched in from the wings and lands, kerplop, on stage.
Now and then, the performers will forsake the shenanigans and just sing, and when they do "Cole" is at its best. Anne Kanengeiser leans up against the piano, trains her green eyes on a spot in the distance and delivers a lovely rendition of "I've Got You Under My Skin." She's not half bad with "Love for Sale," either. In such ensemble numbers as "Tomorrow" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," Lowman is at the center of a hurricane. Indeed, she seems to be generating it herself. Still, I preferred her alone in a spotlight, quietly lamenting the life of a wealthy, loveless woman in "Down in the Depths."
Of the three men in the Off the Circle's newly formed resident ensemble, Wayne Anderson is more actor than singer, perhaps, but he's sharp in "Cherry Pie," slinging insults at Kanengeiser. Gregory Ford carries the epicene mannerisms further than Porter requires, though, while Brienza is all too loutish for this gilded world.
With 41 numbers on a two-act bill that ran two hours and 20 minutes the night I saw it, "Cole" has gotten out of hand in other ways, as well. Not all the songs have been chosen with an eye to variety. Act Two alone features "Leader of a Big Time Band" (urging us to take up the baton), "Farming" (urging us to take up a hoe) and "Be a Clown" (urging us to take up the greasepaint). One piece of musical advice is okay. Three constitute motivational overkill.
COLE. Songs by Cole Porter. Directed by Fredric Lee; musical direction, Tom Tumulty. With Wayne Anderson, Anthony Brienza, Gregory Ford, Anne Kanengeiser, Annette Lowman. At Columbia Station through Feb. 27.