For nearly three hours, performers from Manhattan’s cabaret circuit and veteran Broadway musical comedy stars celebrated the 107th anniversary of Cole Porter’s birthday, barely scratching the surface with more than 30 familiar and rare selections from the composer’s enormous legacy. Host and founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, Donald Smith, noted that a birthday fete for the celebrated composer should not end with the Carnegie Hall centennial in ’91. “Why not 107, 108, 109 and so on,” mused Smith, a Porter enthusiast and historian and a former Mercer publicist.
The songs chosen illustrated the composer’s master craftsmanship. Porter, who died in 1964, shaped music and lyrics with an elegant blend of sophistication, wit and cunning melodic structure.
Highlight of the evening was clearly octogenarian Patricia Morison, who created the role of Lilli Vannesi in the 1948 tuner “Kiss Me, Kate.” Looking radiant and much younger than her years, the actress displayed her still soaring soprano voice, recreating the ardency of “So in Love” and, joined by David Staller, dueted a playfully charming “Wunderbar.”
Following some jazzy instrumentals at the top of the program, Marcia Lewis lent her sharp comic timing to “The Laziest Gal in Town.” Kaye Ballard, fresh from her triumphant turn in the Paper Mill Playhouse revival of “Follies,” mused that Porter was “cursed with taste” and, rolling her r’s with an affectionate nod to legendary chanteuse Mabel Mercer, belted “Down in the Depths (on the 90th Floor).”
Perhaps Manhattan’s finest interpreter of the Porter song book is Steve Ross, who is currently in a monthlong engagement at the new Firebird Cafe. Ross sang thoughtful and reflective versions of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “I Concentrate on You,” the way they were meant to be sung. Susannah McCorkle, currently appearing in the reopened Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, defined tawny torch singing with a 1927 rarity written for a heart-broken Fanny Brice, “Weren’t We Fools.”
Elaine Stritch, who elected not to use a microphone, met with some resistance from the capacity crowd, but triumphed like a trouper from the days before amplified sound on Broadway, and won her audience over with the caustic saloon order, “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please.”
The stately Julie Wilson, a “Kate” alumnus, saluted the musical’s 50th anniversary, reprising her role of Bianca with a saucy “Always True to You in My Fashion” and “Why Can’t You Behave?”
The Porter concert was sandwiched between two other programs, under the collective banner of “A Swell.” Monday event introduced cabaret newcomers, and the Wednesday program honored Gertrude Lawrence on the 100th anniversary of her birth. Scheduled performers included KT Sullivan, Celeste Holm, Andrea Marcovicci and Morison.