While many have declared that New York’s theater season is top-heavy with Shakespeare, I see a stealth invasion of the jukebox musical.
Exuberant tuners featuring the likes of Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, Clive Davis, Burt Bacharach, Carole King, and Harlem’s Cotton Club have struck a chord with audiences longing to recapture the magic, albeit manufactured, of old favorites. Most of these shows intersperse biographical nuggets in an attempt to add context or drama or both.
And now, Cole Porter gets his own jukebox bio-musical — but there’s a twist. “Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter,” courtesy of the York Theatre Company, focuses on his devoted wife of 35 years who served as his undersung muse.
If you didn’t know that the legendary songwriter, famous for such durable gems as “Love For Sale,” “In the Still of the Night,” and “Night and Day” — just a few of some 20 tunes performed in this delightful, heartfelt work — had a wife, you are forgiven. It was an open secret that Porter was a fervent homosexual, and his lyrics are riddled with curious, not-so-veiled gay references (look no further than “You’re the Top”).
The main intent of this solo show, starring jazz vocalist Stevie Holland, who also wrote the book (with an assist from musical arranger Gary William Friedman), is to shine a spotlight on Linda’s sizable influence on her supremely talented hubby (the couple first met in Paris in 1919). Holland believes it’s time to shake Linda’s second-fiddle status once and for all.
This charming little wisp of a show, which lands somewhere closer to a revue than a book musical, is a decidedly intimate affair. The blonde, radiant Holland is backed by Christopher McGovern on piano, Danny Weller on bass, and Alex Wyatt on drums. The talented trio serves as the primary set piece, along with a zebra skin rug, crimson deco chair, and little table with a photograph of Porter, a cigarette case, and a glass of champagne.
For her part, the confidently poised Holland brings an intense vulnerability to the nurturing partner role. Her impassioned, supple renditions of Porter’s gorgeous classics are bright and fresh, managing to steer clear of maudlin territory. It should be noted that Holland seems more comfortable reinterpreting standards than portraying a character.
The brilliance of “Love, Linda,” directed by theater veteran Richard Maltby, Jr., is serving up all-too-familiar standards in an unexpected context. Coming from Linda, “So In Love,” from Porter’s 1948 hit show “Kiss Me Kate,” conveys a sharper sense of futility:
So taunt me and hurt me
Deceive me, desert me
I’m yours ‘til I die
So in love, so in love
So in love with you, my love, am I
If “Love, Linda” is an ode to Porter’s forgotten wife, it’s also a meditation on the limits of labels. For decades, Cole has been branded the “witty gay songwriter,” and Linda his “beard” or “fag hag.” The marriage was a shrewd partnership — Linda was a rich socialite reeling from a divorce from an abusive husband. Porter enhanced her social status as they mingled with the bright young things of the Jazz age and beyond.
Yet it was more than a marriage of convenience. Holland sees their bond as a complex love story, brimming with beauty and art.
“Just because love between two people may be difficult to define,” Linda asserts at the top of the show, “that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.” She even says that Porter “gladly obliged” her “occasional desires” while she allowed him to satisfy his “more complex sexual palette elsewhere.”
Porter regularly shared his song drafts with his wife, who wasn’t shy about giving notes. Porter often heeded her suggestions. In Paris and Venice and New York, the couple was the toast of the town.
Not that their relationship was all roses and Waldorf salads. A chagrined Linda reads aloud her husband’s desperately amorous letters to a young ballet dancer named Boris — the men had a steamy, public love affair in Venice. After moving to culture-starved Hollywood, Linda suffered from bouts of boredom and jealousy.
“With all those suntanned Adonises around him, Cole abandoned the discreet behavior I had grown to rely on,” she laments.
Linda skipped out once but came running back to take care of him after he suffered a horrible accident, falling from a horse and crushing both his legs. He needed her more than ever, and she was happy to oblige.
One of this season’s most popular jukebox musicals is the high-octane “A Night With Janis Joplin,” which features a rollicking Janis taking swigs from a bottle of Southern Comfort. I couldn’t help wishing that Holland’s dignified, self-possessed Linda would sashay over to the side table, chug that full glass of champagne, and loosen up her delivery just a little bit.
LOVE, LINDA: THE LIFE OF MRS. COLE PORTER | York Theatre Company | The Theater at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Ave.; enter on E. 54th St. | Through Jan. 5: Mon. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 2:30 & 7 p.m. | $67.50 at yorktheatre.org or 212-935-5820
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