Opera + Classical Music Reviews

A Swell Party – The Life and Music of Cole Porter @ Cadogan Hall, London

6 August 2008

Cadogan Hall’s second self-produced Summer show is a celebration of the life and work of the American songwriter for whom “they don’t write ’em like that any more” could have been coined.

A star cast, led by top West End singers Maria Friedman and Daniel Evans, camp and vamp their way through some of the greatest songs in the American songbook repertoire.

A Swell Party originated as a West End compilation show back in 1991, a conception of David Kernan, one of the original performers in Side by Side by Sondheim. The problem with this tried and tested format (a handful of singers with minimal accompaniment, in this case piano duet, and a trust that the songs will do all the work) is that what was ground-breaking in 1976 now looks a bit tired. A case of yet another opening, yet another show. Maybe, it’s time somebody came up with a new way of presenting this material before it all looks a bit lazy and old-hat.

Having said that, it’s been a successful formula for a long time and when you have some of the best musical theatre performers in London and the work of an undoubted genius, it can still be a winner. This Cole Porter show brings together exactly the same singers as last year’s Sondheim concerts: Maria Friedman (recently seen in her solo show at the Menier Chocolate Factory), Daniel Evans, able to be present due to an unextended run of Sunday in the Park With George on Broadway, the reliable Graham Bickley and versatile Mary Carewe. Musical direction and piano accompaniment was in the highly-experienced hands of David Firman and Jason Carr.

In the romanticised 1946 biopic of Cole Porter’s life, the songwriter was played by Cary Grant. Here we get Simon Green, who is kind of suave and dapper in his own way, with a constant knowing wink to the gallery and an instant rapport with the audience. Green’s “Cole” narrates his own life, a basic autobiographical tour providing the skeleton of the piece. It’s all a bit obvious “And then I went to Paris”, cue “I Love Paris” and ” You Don’t Know Paree” and packed full of corny gags but it works well enough as a means of binding the 35 red-hot (and blue) songs together.

Porter wrote some 800 songs and it’s inevitable that there’ll be favourites missing. “Let’s Do It”, “It’s Delovely” and “You’re the Top” have to wait for the medley treatment as a final number (although the latter also gets a lively piano arrangement at the opening of Act 2). My personal favourites were Daniel Evans’ “Love for Sale”, dripping with nonchalance, and “Begin the Beguine”, with hypnotising bolero-like accompaniment. Friedman gets a couple of show-stoppers with “Blow Gabriel Blow” and “I Happen to Like New York”, while Bickley’s big moment is a terribly English “Miss Otis Regrets” and Carewe gives plenty of welly to “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”.

A Swell Party? I may have missed a bit of the sheer personality and depth of expression of an Ella Fitzgerald but not a bad shindig and the enthusiastic audience was clearly won over from the off.

A Swell Party plays for four performances (6-9 August) and is followed at Cadogan Hall by three Gershwin shows – Willard White sings Gershwin (13 Aug), Glorious Gershwin with the RPO (14 Aug) and Kim Criswell in Gershwin and Friends (22-23 Aug). Box Office: 020 7730 4500.

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