Songs: “By Candlelight,” “You Never Know,” “Let’s Not Talk About Love,” “I’m Going in for Love,” “I’m Back in Circulation,” “From Alpha to Omega,” “What Shall I Do?,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “I Happen to Be in Love,” “What Is That Tune?,” “At Long Last Love,” “Ridin’ High.”
There is a great deal of empty elegance on the stage of the Paper Mill. Michael Anania’s fanciful stage design clearly sets the mood: It is a gorgeous penthouse suite, circa 1929, at the Ritz in Paris. Prancing deer support the table tops for candelabra and chilled champagne. There are potted palms, naked figurines and, at center stage, a sweet little golden baby grand.
It is certainly Cole Porter’s playground, a heavenly, chic love nest where silly, affluent people play the game of amour in the make-believe world of a bygone era. “You Never Know” is an antique from 1938. It was not a hit then, despite an all-star cast. Based on the Viennese comedy “Candlelight,” the plot involves a baron and his devilishly conniving valet who exchange identities, and very often jackets and tails, in an attempt to bed partners for the night.
It is frightfully simple as staged and acted, completely lacking in wit and barren of comic inspiration, a chamber musical built on straw. What does survive , however, are the songs by Cole Porter, although the composer often publicly stated his own intense dislike of the musical, telling his biographer it was the worst show he was ever associated with.
Still, his literate lyrics and complex harmonies enlighten an inane script. Devious romantic pursuits pave the way for lilting musical interludes from the haunting “By Candlelight” to the jaunty classic “At Long Last Love.” One always expects interpolations with a Porter revival, and this time around it’s “Ridin’ High” (plucked from the 1936 “Red Hot and Blue”), and “Let’s Misbehave,” a saucy invitation from the 1928 “Paris.”
John Scherer as the playboy Baron and Michael O’Steen as the bumbling manservant desperately reach out for laughs in vain, but they dazzle the audience with a tandem tap dance to “I Happen to Be in Love.” Nancy Hess, in a stunning silver and gray gown, reprises the title song with alluring grace and joins Scherer in the dutiful Porter beguine for a lover’s pas de deux in the moonlight.
There’s a nifty added attraction in the presence of KT Sullivan, Manhattan’s bright-eyed cabaret star. Jilted by a rich beau, Sullivan whips a lethal fur boa , smashes champagne flutes and precious vases to announce that she is “Back in Circulation.” It’s a first act highlight, spiced by her golden pizzazz and kewpie-doll charm.
Director Charles Repole, a past master at period excavations, moves the action swiftly from song to song, but fails to harness the fun. Gregg Barnes’ costumes are nothing short of divine, and Anania’s set makes it all so very luscious.
For the record, “You Never Know” opened on Broadway in 1938 at the Winter Garden with a cast that included Clifton Webb, Lupe Velez, Libby Holman, Rex O’Malley, Toby Wing and Paul & Grace Hartman. The show ran for 78 performances.