Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cole Porter's OUT OF THIS WORLD: Musical Theatre Guild Concert Staging




GRAPHIC: Sheet music cover from the original production of OUT OF THIS WORLD.
Illustration from the book,
Performing Arts - Music, Iris Newsom, editor, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 1995
which features the illustrated article,
Out of This World: The Lesser-Known COLE PORTER
by Ross Care.

This article is based on primary material from the Library's Cole Porter collection and includes a lengthy section on the evolution of OUT OF THIS WORLD.


OUT OF THIS WORLD was Cole Porter’s much-anticipated follow-up to his sensational comeback show, KISS ME, KATE. In fact, KATE was still playing on Broadway when WORLD opened in New York in December of 1950. However the new show did not match either its predecessor’s critical acclaim or longevity, closing (and more or less disappearing) after only six months. But OUT OF THIS WORLD was fated to quickly to enter the pantheon of glittering Broadway legend.

Today it’s still well remembered for Lemuel Ayers’ opulent sets, effects, and costumes, the racy choreography of Agnes de Mille (who though still credited with staging was replaced as director during the show’s troubled try-out period), and the Broadway return of Charlotte Greenwood as Juno. It’s also legendary for its difficult try-out phase which involved much re-writing, song shifting, and a switch in directors, and during which parts of the show were literally “banned in Boston”. (This new version, spiced up with some polymorphous metro sexual goings-on, would have created even more of a scandal back in 1950!)

So during its pre-opening phase the offstage activity at OUT OF THIS WORLD was apparently as (or more) colorfully dramatic than those in the troublesome script. But eventually Porter’s score reached such cult status that several attempts were made to revise the show’s problematic book (which was freely based on the ancient Plautus comedy, AMPHITRYON, which in turn was based on the myth of the god Jupiter’s infatuation with a beautiful mortal woman).

The recent Musical Theatre Guild’s staged concert reading of OUT OF THIS WORLD (at the Scherr Forum of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, and also at the Aero in Glendale) used one of these new revisions (by Greg Mackellan). It maintains the basic concept of mortals unwittingly caught up in the machinations of the lecherous gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. But these are no mere mortals; rather now ‘50s Hollywood types who are doing a film on location in Athens, metamorphosing the original plot (involving an average honeymooning American couple interacting with gods and gangsters) into a kind of satiric Clash of the Titans.

The original Chicago gangster is here replaced by a busybody bisexual Hollywood columnist (acidly played by Eileen Barnett) who amusingly tempts the various secondary gods (including Mars and Apollo) to go aggressively Hollywood in the show’s second act. This revision also maintains the show’s original period, providing a timeframe for Porter’s patented “list” lyrics which remain as cuttingly satiric and “in” as ever for those with a knowledge of the references (Peggy Joyce, Truman’s Bess).

But today of course OUT OF THIS WORLD is most fondly remembered for Porter’s fabulous score as a whole that (like his work for the MGM film THE PIRATE around the same period) took some time to achieve the recognition and respect it so richly deserves. Porter’s music is a brilliant pastiche, and anticipates such later shows as FOLLIES and CANDIDE. The songs range from some of his loveliest and least-known ballads, “Use Your Imagination,” and “I Am Loved,” both particularly moving in as sung by Teri Bibb/Helen, to the pseudo spiritual “Climb Up The Mountain” which provides a boffo opening to act two.

In between are some of Porter’s most tongue-twisting (and Gilbert and Sullivan-ish) list/patter numbers and ensembles. “They Couldn’t Compare to You,” was brilliantly executed by Richard Israel as Mercury, and a melodic trio, “What Do You Think About Men,” (like the opening “Hail to Juno”) could have come out of an Offenbach operetta.

Suffice to say each number is a glittering jewel and here brilliantly performed by an equity cast well up to the challenges of both Porter’s scintillating words and demanding music. This OOTW maintains almost all of the original score in more or less the order of the 1950 version, but also reinstates the now classic “From This Moment On” which was dropped from the original score. One minor personal carp, however, is that this version drops “Hark To The Song of the Night,” one of Porter’s mostly lyrical melodies and a number to which I was especially looking forward to due to the stirring baritone of David Holmes as Jupiter. But it was replaced by “You Don’t Remind Me,” which was one of many numbers dropped from the original production,

This production featured a true ensemble cast and it’s difficult to mention individuals though Damon Kirsche was a super and sexily nerdish Clark Kent-style male lead, and his brief turn disguised as the smitten, if still pompous Jupiter was especially well done. The petite Marsha Kramer amply filled in for statuesque Greenwood as Juno, the show’s plum role. But then everyone, gods and mortals, were supernaturally excellent as a whole, an aspect of these MTG concert productions even more amazing considering the tight schedule with which they are put together.

The costumes by Shon Leblanc, were mostly, yes, white (Leblanc, get it? J) but inventively accessorized to provide an opulent and visually cohesive impression. The minimal choreography, Todd Nielson’s direction, full of both broad and subtle comic detail, and Ed Martel’s music supervision and fluid keyboard work, kept everything both focused and animated.

This superb Music Theatre Guild presentation proves you don’t need falling chandeliers or a retro pop anthology score to provide a brilliant and endlessly entertaining evening of theater, if you’ve got the right material. OUT OF THIS WORLD definitely is the right stuff, and this production was a legendary Broadway dream come true.

For me it also re-emphasized the magical, poignantly transient wonder of live musical theater and I came away wishing this production could be ensconced in one of those reasonable 99-seaters in Los Angeles (or anywhere) where everyone could have the opportunity to orbit OUT OF THIS WORLD every night!

Ross Care

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