Monday, February 15, 2010

Stevie Holland Sings Porter as Porter

Everyone from Fred Astaire to Charlie Parker has interpreted the music of Cole Porter. Yet for many biographers, his scandalous private life often overshadows his celebrated songbook. The nature and frequency of his indiscretions certainly put his wife Linda in difficult positions during their thirty-four year marriage. Still, they shared a deep underlying affection that inspired jazz vocalist Stevie Holland’s one-woman show, Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter, which will soon return for an open-ended run at the Triad Theatre on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper Westside on March 3rd. Happily for those living outside New York, the soundtrack to Love, Linda, starring Holland singing the Porter songbook, is now available on CD.

Backed by a jazz piano trio, Holland performs in the persona of Linda Porter, telling her life story through her beloved husband’s songs and brief dramatic interludes. Listeners will get a sense of the show’s vibe from the opening track, a medley of “So In Love” and “What Is This Thing Called Love” connected by dialogue from the show succinctly explaining the Porter’s relationship.

In a nutshell, Linda Lee Thomas was a wealthy divorcee eight years Cole Porter’s senior when they first met in Paris at an exclusive society affair. While his prodigious musical talent was obvious, his penchant for illicit affairs soon became apparent as well. However, it was not other women that Linda Porter had to worry about. Ultimately though, Holland’s Linda Porter can forgive her husband quite a bit because she finds his music so sublime.

Indeed, Porter was a master at matching sophisticated lyrics to catchy melodies, aptly demonstrated by the songs selected by Holland. In addition to well representing the Porter canon, Love’s musical numbers also serve a real dramatic purpose, nicely underscoring the events of the Porters’ lives, like her torchy “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.

Throughout the show and album, Holland gets rock solid support from her trio of pianist Landon Knoblock, bassist Peter Brendler, and drummer Jeff Davis. To her credit, Holland allows Landon space for some brief but swinging jazz-style solos on several tunes, including their swinging takes on “Love for Sale” and “What is This Thing.”

Arranger-orchestrator Gary William Friedman (perhaps best known as the musical director of The Electric Company) also puts an intriguing twist on several familiar Porter standards, like the typically lamenting “Miss Otis Regrets” which transforms into a surprisingly bop-oriented jazz number, even featuring some hip scatting from Holland. While the arrangement of “Love for Sale” is more traditional, Holland performs it with an unusual edge that fits quite well in the context of the show.

Perhaps Love, Linda’s biggest showstopper is Holland’s achingly romantic rendition of “In the Still of the Night,” which is exactly how listeners want to hear it performed. The stirring closing number “When a Woman’s in Love” is also a real highlight of the set, dramatically summing up the show while showcasing her impressive vocal range.

Holland clearly has a strong affinity for the American Songbook in general and Porter in particular, interpreting his songs with respect and verve. She definitely serves the music of Cole Porter and the memory of Linda quite well throughout the show and resulting “cast album.” In many ways, the stage production of Love, Linda is an elegant fusion of forms (that made my top ten independent theater list for 2009). Structurally it is an effective hybrid of cabaret and solo theater, while musically it is a stylish hybrid of cabaret and jazz. It is perfectly suited to the intimate space of the Triad and now for late night home listening.

(Photo courtesy of 150 Productions)