‘Cole & Will’: Missed opportunities

The latest show at the Victoria Hall — the third for the fledgling Victoria Hall Theater Company — affords an opportunity to hear nearly 30 of Cole Porter’s songs, from the familiar (“Anything Goes”) to the obscure (“After You, Who?”). The sheer delight in the music is only matched by the witty lyrics that seem to bubble up effortlessly, song after song.

Unfortunately, in “Cole & Will (Together Again)” they are framed by a wooden play that serves little but to make the songs a welcome respite from the goings-on.

Mr. Porter took William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and spun gold out of it in “Kiss Me Kate.”

It’s the idea of playwrights Elaine Kendall and Norman B. Schwartz (who produce and direct, respectively, as well) that other Shakespeare plays could do with the Porter treatment. So, in a feat of theatrical hooey (blackout, thunder, lightning), who should walk into a Porter-thrown cocktail party but the Bard himself?

After some expository dialogue, William brings out scripts that he carries with him in a satchel, hands them out to certain chosen members of the party, and a brief scene from a play is read, if not acted, out. Then follows an appropriate Porter song: “I Love Paris” for the love scene in “Henry V”; “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” for the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet”; “You Do Something To Me” for Cesario/Olivia confessing her love to Orsino in “Twelfth Night.”

The process repeats itself up to intermission. After 15 minutes, it starts up again and continues until the end. That’s it.

The idea behind “Cole & Will” is truly half-baked. There’s nothing wrong with musing what song would fit with what play, but that should be where the play’s ideas begin, not end. Little thought has been put into the actual members of the party we are supposed to be witnessing. Apart from the Shakespearean scenes they share, none of the characters interact with each other; despite the equal number of men and women on stage, there are no lovers or couples. Instead of a party that fantastically evolves into a musical within a musical, we see the theatrical equivalent of “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?”

Mr. Schwartz doesn’t appear to know what to do with a stage full of performers. His default position is to arrange his cast far back along the perimeters of the stage, where they bide time until it’s their turn to sing. When one actor sings to another — and there are few duets here — the receiving actor is left standing still like a post.

In one forced bit of business, seven cast members, four women and three men, all take turns with a song to suit “Romeo and Juliet.”

The unequal coupling means that actor Celeste Tavera is left abandoned front stage while the rest canoodle. It’s a cruel piece of blocking that’s hard to believe is intentional. (Ending the 10-minute sequence with the three men swooning over Ms. Tavera doesn’t rectify the previous moments, either).

William Shakespeare — the wordsmith, not the character — fares badly as well. With a few exceptions (one being Paul Welterlen’s lively take on Richard III), the cast gives dry and perfunctory readings of the various excerpted scenes. None of this is helped by seeing the actors carrying around the script. Shakespeare’s art becomes a stodgy blur, the stuff from which junior high students run screaming. Cole Porter’s songs aren’t improved by framing them with Shakespeare; no new meaning is found within the lyrics, and irony is nowhere to be found.

Which is why, at least when it comes to the music, the play is on safe ground. Backed by David Potter on piano, who I assume is the musical director (no explicit credit is given), the cast includes several pleasant vocalists: tenor Bill Christensen; the aforementioned Ms. Tavera, soprano; and baritone Leslie Bisno. In fact, the whole cast is in fine voice. In these moments, one can relax and indulge in Mr. Porter’s gift for melody and wordplay. Mr. Schwartz has been inconsistent in singing styles however, mixing performers from the musical theater with classically trained operatic singers — not always best for interpreting Mr. Porter’s sharp words.

What really drags is Ms. Kendall and Mr. Schwartz’s interminable expository filler between songs. Despite the best efforts of Martin Bell (Cole Porter) and Michael Hawkins (William Shakespeare), there’s not much to be done with lines that read like Cliff’s Notes, delivered as if the audience has been called in by the school principal for a special morning assembly.

“Cole & Will” will only please diehard fans of the former artist; others who seek to brush up on their Shakespeare deserve better than a brushoff.

When: Through Sept. 21
Where: Victoria Hall, 33 W. Victoria St.
Cost: $15 (senior/students) to $29
Information: 565-9359 or www.ticketmaestro.org

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