WHEN PEOPLE BECOME cult figures it frequently becomes difficult to separate the usually vulgar behavior and attitudes of their admirers from the quality and meaning of their work. They become engulfed in their popularity; to outsiders, they become obscured by the swarm around them. This phenomenon is particularly true of figures in the world of entertainment, and even more valid when applied to deceased entertainment figures, blurred or overwhelmed by their constantly receding popularity. Still, some of these figures--particularly the true giants of their fields--manage to shine through their haloes, as it were. By their lives, reputations and mostly by their works, they remain in sharp focus for new generations of admirers.
Cole Porter was just such a figure. He died almost a decade before I was born, and even through he is now something of a cult figure--one with a half-twist, too, because his following, like Judy Garland's, has the rep of being largely gay--his music has an incredible strength and resilience.
Few other memories, musical or otherwise, from the period 1915-1945 have survived with such vigor and freshness. Porter was perhaps the greatest songwriter of all time, and certainly the most versatile. Critics are indeed hard-pressed to name anyone as consistently good, before or since. And his lyrics--few writers, much less songwriters, could ever match his wit and style. He not only reflected his times; he put a patina on them that will not fade.
Unfortunately, Porter's works, especially the less famous ones, are rarely performed in Boston. So the Charles Playhouse's current production of The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter is particularly welcome, both as a sure-fire cure for a case of the mid-summer blues and as a tribute to the grand master of American song.
Decline and Fall features a cast of five performers, running through a repertoire of anywhere between 32 and 35 songs (the program lists 35, but they skipped three) in a briskly-paced two-hour show. Almost all are excellent singers, and even those who don't quite measure up vocally more than make up for it with stage presence, comic sense, and charm. Staged in a mixed dinner theater (the words strike terror into the hearts of serious actors and patrons alike) and cabaret atmosphere--both drinks and dinner are available in addition to the admission fee--this excellent revue moves almost effortlessly from one song to the next. The whole show is tied together on a rather thin and poorly-planned pretext--most of the sparse dialogue consists of a synopsis of Porter's career, leading into the songs--but that format is merely for the purposes of decoration and filler. While it does not add to the quality of the show, it certainly does not detract.
THE STAGING is limited by the fact that the stage itself measures about six feet by 15 feet--not much room, but in this cabaret set-up it hardly matters. Three doors provide the set, but while the look of the show is simple, the numbers are not, for Porter's songs make unusual demands on a singer. The exact harmonies and sure rhythmic style make Porter's works difficult to perform. But this company, led by the fine voices of Baja Mahdi and Linda Terry, can and does sing, very well. They tend to shy away from Porter's more famous stuff, concentrating instead on the more obscure but no less delightful material.
To say much more about this stellar production would be to belabor the point. Suffice it to say that it is very good, and very well worth seeing, whether you are on the inside or the outside of the Cole Porter cult.