Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter continues at York Theatre Company, New York, until 5 January.
Life wasn’t always wunderbar for Mr. and Mrs. Cole Porter. But most of the time it was pretty damn good, as related by Linda Porter in the sumptuous Off-Broadway musical Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter. The one-woman show is a miniature bonbon with a gigantic score of some 20 Porter tunes, performed with all the appropriate elegance as well as depth of feeling by Stevie Holland. Having made a name for herself as a jazz singer, Holland here shows herself to be a grand interpreter of the Porter oeuvre. She explores the lyrics for both their emotion and cleverness and captures the silken beauty and jaunty sophistication of his melodies.
The performer, along with Gary William Friedman, also wrote the book for the show, which has been mounted previously in a cabaret space. But this production marks its Off-Broadway premiere. In it, Linda Porter, talking directly to the audience, skims through her life, including an abusive first marriage to a newspaper mogul, followed by her 34 years with Cole Porter. The narration makes clear Linda’s dedication to Cole and her acceptance of his homosexuality, so long as his extra-curricular affairs were handled “with discretion”.
And the early years of their life together in Paris and Venice are painted as an intoxicating medley of parties and celebrity, epitomising the Roaring Twenties. The good times continued after Cole’s talent took them to New York and a series of hit Broadway shows. Things got bumpy with some theatrical flops, but it was only when the composer’s sexual proclivities got out of hand, while working in Hollywood, that Linda was driven to file for divorce. However, she came back to him after the horseback riding accident which crushed both his legs, and she remained with him through the reigniting of his career with Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 and until her death from emphysema in 1954.
A svelte vision in a sleeveless, clingy black gown and feathery blond hairdo, Holland makes a fetching narrator, using the Porter tunes to amplify and enrich the story. Played by a trio on piano, bass and drums, the music often takes on a surprising freshness in Friedman’s arrangements. For example, the usually playful ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ becomes a plaintive admission of unshakeable attachment, while ‘In the Still of the Night’, often sung with a formal grace, is rendered as a deeply painful cry for requited love. At the same time, there’s plenty of the Porter naughtiness brought to the fore, as in a medley of ‘Let’s Do It’, ‘You’ve Got That Thing’, ‘Let’s Misbehave’, and ‘You Do Something to Me’. Other highlights include a compellingly sincere rendering of Porter’s takeoff on operetta silliness ‘Wunderbar’ and the passionate closing anthem, ‘When a Woman’s in Love’, (a little known tune from 1943 written for an unproduced movie), summing up Linda’s devotion to Cole.
Director Richard Maltby Jr gives the show a theatrical validity, taking it smartly beyond what could be simply a cabaret homage. The ambience is further informed by the sleek set designed by James Morgan (who is also York Theatre Company’s producing artistic director) and the lighting of Graham Kindred. But in the final analysis, of course, it’s Holland’s indisputable talents and the great Cole Porter tunes, that make Love, Linda a love letter well worth opening.