Porter Tribute Puffed Up With Charm-Deflating Whimsy

Cole Porter's best songs are urbane, cool, sexy, witty and funny. They aren't cute .

You also don't have to sell Cole Porter. His lyrics and melodies, linked by a top hat stylishness, are best served simply--they sell themselves.

"No Mother but Jazz," the Newport Theatre Arts Center's tribute to Porter, is both cute and big on salesmanship. Most of the more than 30 tunes aren't just sung, they're gassed up with whimsy to the point where the charm is all but deflated.

"No Mother" is presented in much the same way as similarly reverential revues, particularly "Side by Side by Sondheim." A five-person ensemble (Roberta Kay, Ronald Smith, Mark Wickham, Cindy Warden and Debbie Ann Mohlin) introduces each number with a mini-preamble about its significance in the Porter library, or some related tidbit from the composer's life.

It's at these times that "No Mother" can be most intriguing. There are revelations here that only a student of Porter might know--that, for instance, the 1934 movie "The Gay Divorcee," one of Porter's many Hollywood projects, was first performed on Broadway as "The Gay Divorce"; the name was changed because moguls felt film-goers would frown on a title with such an obviously satiric slant toward a wrecked marriage. Porter must have thought that that was pretty silly.

Then there are the details on an equestrian accident later in Porter's life that shattered his legs. Amputation was advised but he refused, choosing instead to wear heavy braces and to suffer daily pain in his last years. It's also interesting to hear what some of the powerful New York critics thought of Porter. Many didn't like his work, which certainly underscores the fallibility of published opinion.

Unfortunately, even these biographical asides emphasize the problems with this production. Rarely are they offered with restraint but rather with a theatrical preciousness that inches toward parody.

This only escalates with the songs. To its credit, the ensemble is intent on pleasing, but the result is too many struck poses (from girlish shimmies and dips to gigolo struts), rolling eyes and smug smiles. A little of this goes a long way; after a short while, it all becomes cloying.

There are a few exceptions, most notably the melancholy trio of "In the Still of the Night," "Get Out of Town" and "I Concentrate on You," sung in succession with moody sensitivity. Compare these to the uneven calibration of "I've Got You Under My Skin" (done here solely for laughs) and you see where this production goes awry.

As for the singing, well, it ranges from barely adequate to good, the best of the group being Smith and Mohlin. Also on the positive side are Mary Morales' elegantly Brahmin costumes, just the right garb for a moneyed dandy and his sleek mistress. And Gil Morales' silvery set, with its candelabra and draping veils, has its own ostentatious pedigree. Cole Porter would at least have liked the digs and duds.

'NO MOTHER BUT JAZZ' A Newport Theatre Arts Center musical tribute to Cole Porter. Directed by John Lee and Susan Thomas Lee. Musical direction by Beth Hansen. With Roberta Kay, Ronald Smith, Mark Wickham, Cindy Warden and Debbie Ann Mohlin. Arranger and pianist Terence Alaric, percussionist Irving Davis and Doug Gregan on reeds. Sets by Gil Morales. Costumes by Mary Morales. Lighting by Jane Phillips Hobson. Plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through Feb. 21 at 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Tickets: $9. (714) 631-0288.

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