No matter how unevenly presented and performed, a musical revue filled with Cole Porter songs is a treasure trove of sophisticated, witty and often a bit naughty songs spanning Broadway's golden years and brimming with solid standards. Who cares that the spaghetti-thin plotline of the Red Hot & Cole is annoyingly contrived, or that the Theatre Factory's production is sometimes unwieldy? The songs sparkle, and that's all that matters.
The "plot" of the 1989 show (written by James Bianchi, Muriel McAuley and Randy Strawderman) consists of a series of fashionable parties, dripping with the boldface names of the era, all now pretty obscure as celebrities go. Hands out there from anyone who remembers such stars of the musical stage as Clifton Webb and Bricktop? I thought I knew my musical trivia, but even I had to look up Bricktop, a popular African-American singer and nightclub owner in Paris between the wars.
Cole sticks closer to Porter's biography than earlier expositions, but alludes to rather than openly acknowledges his homosexuality. Grandma in the audience doesn't pick up the hints, and Cole retains a G rating. But insisting upon a story structure and real people as characters requires the 16 cast members to act -- if not mimic -- as well as sing and dance. For example, we may not know what Irene Castle sounded like, but can identify her as a dancer with a sense of style and grace, nicely captured by Holly Bryant Scott. Conversely, we do know the famously big voice of Ethel Merman; Erin Stetor captures Merman's sense of comedy but not her vocal prowess. It's hard not to feel cheated.
The Theatre Factory does have some glorious voices, especially Brittany R. Graham, a full-throated, Porter-quality leading-lady soprano, portraying the composer's wife. Also notable are Kelsey Robinson as Bricktop, Joan Russell as various celebs not known for singing, and Jason Barnsley under-used in several small roles.
Cole is an ambitious undertaking for director Scott P. Calhoun, musical director Janell Garoff and choreographer Scott P. Sambueo, who have mounted a fast-paced, if occasionally wobbly evening of fun. Porter wrote hundreds of songs, and Cole has room for only a few dozen, some of them painfully truncated -- rather like hors d'oeuvres instead of dinner, whetting the appetite for more.
Red Hot & Cole continues through Sun., Aug. 3. The Theatre Factory, Trafford. 412-374-9200 or www.thetheatrefactory.com