I’ve never been a late-night type so I’m not too familiar with the cabaret scene in New York. And I’m not the one you’ll see walking down the street with wires plugged into my ears, listening to pop music or jazz (or any music for that matter). So I’d never heard the work of cabaret star and recording artist Stevie Holland when I entered the York Theatre to witness her one-woman show Love, Linda.
An hour later, when it was over, all I could say was “Thank you, Jim Morgan (Producing Director at the York Theatre), for bringing this incredible lady into a theatre.” By so doing, a whole new audience will be able to discover a triple-threat artist delivering a Play with Music in which she uses the music and lyrics of the late great Cole Porter to tell the story of Linda Belle Lee, a descendant of the Lee family of Virginia who, in her youth was a great beauty.
Introduced by friends to Edward Russell Thomas when she was seventeen, she married him and made the best of that mistake for eleven years before she divorced him, reportedly due to his abuse. Six years later, having pretty much given up on men, she took one look at Cole Porter, fresh out of Yale, handsome and talented, ten years her junior, playing tunes of his at a piano in the Hotel Ritz in Paris. Linda set her cap for the footloose young man, and eleven month later, on December 18, 1919 in the city hall of the 18th Arrondissement in Paris, she became his bride.
The one woman musical that Ms. Holland has conceived with her husband Gary William Friedman (who arranged and augmented Mr. Porter’s music and worked with his wife on the book) describes in some detail the course of that 34 year union. I’ll let her tell you the details, but you should know that, unusual though the rules of it were, there is no question these two distinctive creatures had a marriage that was nourishing to both.
I’ll get to Ms. Holland’s performance in a minute, but first I marvel at the ingenuity she and Mr. Friedman have used to manage the use of some 15 Porter tunes, all of which were written for other revues or book musicals, the lyrics of all having been intended for other characters to sing. They include “I Love Paris,” “You Do Something to Me”, and ride the range from the naughty “My Heart Belongs To Daddy”, to the operettaish “Wunder Bar” to the childlike “Let’s Be Buddies” to the exuberant “I’m Throwing a Ball Tonight” and “Riding High”. In each case, but changing the arrangements that are familiar to us and by interpreting the lyrics as Linda Porter might have done, she has managed something no other musical using old songs has succeeded in doing. She makes them further HER story, makes us believe Mr. Porter had written these songs for a score emanating from it. Even songs as familiar to us as “Night and Day” and “In The Still of the Night” resonate differently under Mr. Friedman’s arrangements and Ms. Holland’s interpretation.
I think of Happy New Year, a 1980 musical which failed at the same task. That one took a Philip Barry play, Holiday, and attached to it a score by the deceased Cole Porter, and none of the songs seemed generic.
Tall, slim, chic, well groomed and simply but elegantly bejeweled, she struts around a set suggesting an elegant living room in her apartment at the Waldorf in New York. She appears to be singing without amplification, except for that ridiculous stringy wire that winds its way down her backless gown, telling us that even in the York’s tiny space it was decided that help was needed. But at least it is subtly applied, and all she need do to give us back our illusion is change into a dress that doesn’t fit quite so snugly, one that discreetly hides her attachment to a battery. But all evening long, she attacks the songs with such intelligence and wit that by evening’s end she has become Mrs. Cole Porter. Her spin on some of the great old songs, now molded to the needs of this piece, is fascinating, and continues throughout the delivery of all 15 of them, more if you count the two medleys.
When I entered, the show was called Love, Linda. But the time I exited, there was no need for that comma in the title. Delete it, and I’ll bet you feel the same way.
Love, Linda – The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter is onstage thru December 5, 2014 at The York Theatre, 619 Lexington Ave. (Entrance on 54th St.) New York, NY. Details and tickets