Sunday, July 31, 2016

With an Indiana bicentennial stamp upon it, Dance Kaleidoscope's "Cole!" returns to the stage

The flippancy, fluency, and observant wit of Cole Porter, always fused in music and words from the same fertile mind, gave David Hochoy a running start when a Dance Kaleidoscope patron suggested long ago that he choreograph some Porter songs for the troupe.

The result was "Cole!," revived now and then since its 1997 premiere — I last saw it at Carmel's Tarkington in 2014. It's a two-part piece that centers its tribute to Porter's popularity first on his songs' appeal when they were new ("Ol' King Cole"), then on their adaptability in terms closer to today ("Cole Soul").
A madcap bit of comic relief: "Miss Otis Regrets"

A lift of infatuation, or perhaps love, in "It's All Right With Me"
Porter's characteristic stance on the malleability of romantic love had a lot to do with the huge impression he made in the early-middle decades of 20th-century America.  Social mores got a little looser, and young people were more mobile and, with their schooling behind them, ready to meet contemporaries their parents and other relatives hadn't introduced them to.

The invitation of "Let's Fall in Love" (1928) was notable not for its logic (is love ever logical?), but for its cumulative zest. If the whole animal kingdom and foreigners of every clime and culture hook up, why should any couple feeling mutual attraction resist the urge, especially with prosperity lubricating the engine? The song makes an irresistible dance number, as movement and gesture can say so much about what goes on beyond words when people connect, especially when there's a sexual zing to it. We are self-evidently in Porter's milieu in Hochoy's setting, which opens the show.

There were two performances at Butler University's Schrott Center of the reprised, tour-ready "Cole!" buoyed by an Indiana Masterpiece Grant Award from the Indiana Arts Commission. I saw Saturday's, and was immediately struck by how well the venue articulated Laura E. Glover's  lighting design, which was both painterly and sculptural. The clarity of the men's athletic movement to a pulse-pounding Artie Shaw band recording of "What Is This Thing Called Love" couldn't have been better. Dark at first, then suddenly shot through with glowing light, the selection had five DK men ceaselessly bouncing off the floor and, seemingly, off the air itself.

And of course, here's another Porter song that, had this been a vocal version, would have pointed up the writer's skepticism as much as his enthusiasm for the subject.  Whether the onset of love is superficial or embedded, it retains its mystery. In the embedded category, there is famously "I've Got You Under My Skin," here with Mariel Greenlee channeling the bilingual allure of Josephine Baker, a landmark in stage fashion (credit to Cheryl Sparks for especially evocative costuming) as well as performance.

Flirtatiousness is essential to the Porter view of love. He saluted a new world, not without misgivings, in which "Anything Goes," a number Hochoy has keyed to Brandon Comer's ineffable charm and vigor. If there's not the zest of temporary attraction to someone new, what are we here for? And where does that come from? It's got to be "Mother Nature, whispering low, 'Let yourself go!'" as "It's De-Lovely" has it. And Hochoy has once again put this successfully into three dimensions to showcase Caitlin Negron's nimbleness and insouciance in fast-moving dance liaisons with several DK men.

A devoted lover's tendency to overpraise takes over another cumulative Porter song, "You're the Top," with several couples displaying the joy of mutual uplift. Eventually, the song becomes a triumph of statuesque choreography, as if — naturally — being "the top" has to involve considerable distance from the ground and the assertion that gravity can be defied (and not by the wires of "Wicked").

It's all about the money in "Millionaire."
The second act demonstrated that more than musical tweaking can make Cole Porter songs seem pertinent to today. Deep irony runs through "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" in the sense that, despite the repeated answer "I don't!," grabbing for outsize currency and clutching fistfuls of the stuff while warding off threats never goes out of style. The slashing geometric diagonals in this act's costumes went particularly well with Hochoy's setting of the driving Thompson Twins version of the song.

Something memorably goofy is contributed to the show by "Miss Otis Regrets," in which Porter's droll, elegant narrative is discarded in favor of abstract street-people exuberance, keyed to Greenlee's trash-bag-wielding central figure, feisty and ever-smiling.

Still, the perils of love with commitment held in abeyance never seem far from the Porter aesthetic — and Hochoy's interpretation of it. This is showcased in two songs: "It's All Right With Me," danced with yearning and restraint by Comer and Timothy June, and in Greenlee's pitch-perfect solo to "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," with its sudden hints of emotional and physical collapse held in check by the attempt not to see every regretted parting as a foreshadowing of long-term loss. Her phrasing left no doubt as to the difficulty the song portrays.

The native son of Peru, Ind., who became refined beyond ready attribution to Hoosierdom by Yale and then Paris, got so much out of not being able to make up his mind about love, then casting it in imperishable songs. This show nails that ambivalence and celebrates the art that resulted.

An illustration of the point can be found in the often neglected verses to "Just One of Those Things" and "Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye" (two songs not dealt with in "Cole!"). Each has an allusion to the iconic romance of Romeo and Juliet. In the first song, it's flippant; in the second, tragic. Porter speculates that the classic story may have been just one of those things, but also that it will always represent undying love cruelly cut short.

We can contemplate having  it both ways, "Cole!" seems to insist. It may be fun to try, but don't expect it to be easy.

[Photo credit: Crowe's Eye Photography]