Jazz review, 'Around the World with Cole Porter' at Symphony Center

If it hadn't been for Cole Porter, the world never would have heard Fred Astaire caressing "Night and Day," Frank Sinatra swinging "I've Got You Under My Skin" or Ella Fitzgerald wrapping her plush and glorious voice around "Begin the Beguine."

More than a century after Porter's birth and nearly four decades since his death, these elegant miniatures -- and dozens more -- still beguile listeners. So it was no surprise that a sold-out crowd rose to its feet more than once during "Around the World with Cole Porter," an all-star homage staged by the Chicago Humanities Festival in Symphony Center over the weekend. As its title suggested, the evening traced Porter's international travels, linking his exotic ports of call with the songs they inspired. More important, the concert -- with narration penned by Porter expert Robert Kimball -- looked beyond the obvious glamor of the songwriter's life and into its darker, lonelier recesses as well.

Kimball knows better than anyone, after all, that Porter's life hardly was the series of nearly uninterrupted triumphs depicted in the 1946 film biography "Night and Day." In truth, for all the glitter of Porter's Broadway openings, Hollywood premieres, Paris soirees and cruises on the River Nile, he led a life rich in paradox and internal conflict.

Though homosexual, he was married. Though married, he romped through uncounted affairs. And though born and raised in tiny Peru, Ind., he wasted no time cutting off his Hoosier roots to become the toast of Manhattan. It showed in his music. The quintessential Porter song was ultra-witty, urbane and more than a little decadent. -- not exactly the breezy, unmistakably Midwestern fare of Indiana's other songwriting genius, Hoagy Carmichael.

For all his wealth and acclaim, Porter suffered excruciating physical pain through the last 27 years of his life. A horseback riding accident in 1937 forced him to endure multiple operations and, eventually, the amputation of his right leg. In the midst of personal tragedy, he managed to compose ebullient stage and film music. From these paradoxes came the most searing lyrics American songwriting had heard since Lorenz Hart. Perhaps Porter's roots in small-town America enabled him to write so eloquently about urban angst in "Down in the Depths on the Ninetieth Floor." Perhaps his erotic adventures made it possible for him to philosophize so knowingly about "Love for Sale."

Although pop and jazz musicians of all kinds routinely perform Porter's tunes, only the most accomplished can get to the interpretive heart of this music. To their credit, Kimball and conductor John McGlinn gathered a cast of pros equipped to address the full sweep of Porter's work.

When Judy Kaye dispatched "Love for Sale," for instance, one realized anew how much tragic undercurrent the song can convey. Her audaciously slow tempo and dark vocal tone -- accompanied by snarling muted trumpets -- made an aria of a piece often performed as a comic ditty. When the inimitable Kim Criswell hissed "Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please," getting a little tipsier by the minute, there was no doubt that Porter had seen his share of 3 a.m. sorrows. But the evening's indelible performances belonged to the veterans, who showed how the music was performed the first time around.

Kitty Carlisle Hart, a glorious survivor of the golden age of the Broadway musical, quaintly waved her hands and swayed her hips in a peppy, bathed-in-sunshine account of "Just One of Those Things." A later generation of interpreters may have found deeper messages in this song, but Hart did it the straightforward, old-fashioned way. Seasoned moviegoers will recall Taina Elg from the 1957 Gene Kelly film "Les Girls," but perhaps none could have predicted how effective she could be in "Ca, C'est L'amour." Her languorous, unabashedly sensuous rendition had an aura about it that younger, less-experienced performers would have been hard-pressed to match.

Patricia Morison, still impossibly elegant decades after starring on Broadway in "Kiss Me Kate," sweetly conveyed the heady waltz rhythms of "Wunderbar." Lewis J. Stadlen offered hilarious deadpan humor in "Miss Otis Regrets" and in a ribald duet with Criswell in "But in the Morning, No!"

If tenor George Dvorsky often leaned toward beautiful sound at the expense of distinctive interpretations, he nonetheless captured big-city awe in "I Happen to Like New York" and cowpoke humor in "Don't Fence Me In."

But the most important performance on Friday night came from conductor McGlinn, who understands the vernacular vocal style, swing-tinged orchestral accompaniment and flexible rhythms that this music requires. Thanks to McGlinn, Porter emerged not merely as pop tunesmith but as a sublimely poetic and versatile lyricist. Here was the rare Porter evening that did justice to the man and his music.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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