It’s De-Lovely

Stevie Holland in Love, Linda
Triad Theater

Of all the cabaret acts about the legendary Cole Porter, Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter is the first one that tries to shine a light on the most mysterious part of the composer’s life—the shrouded role played by his wife, Kentucky socialite Linda Lee Porter, a descendant of General Robert E. Lee, in a marriage that lasted 35 years. The light it shines is more candle than klieg, but maybe it’s an impossible job. Even when she was portrayed, by Alexis Smith and Ashley Judd, in two sloppy movies, she was more a cipher than a living, breathing partner, soul mate or significant other. Cole Porter has never been forgotten, but we never really knew Linda. After Love, Linda, we still don’t.

Love, Linda, an enjoyable one-woman show at the Triad created for and performed by the stunning song stylist Stevie Holland, is a tuneful but synthetic examination of dates and facts that play like footnotes in a Cole Porter biography. Elegantly gowned in black, and framed on two sides of the stage by armfuls of red roses, the saffron-haired Ms. Holland looks radiant and sings more than a dozen standards, such as “I Love Paris” and “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” but what she teaches us about the real story behind the scenes of an outwardly glamorous, inwardly tortured marriage is sketchy at best. When they were both expatriates in Paris, the bored divorcée met Cole at the Ritz and mistook him for a piano player for hire. One by one, she dropped her rich suitors for this young homosexual from Peru, Indiana, forsaking all others. Maybe it was his treble clef. Snobby observation among the social set of the ’20s: “Boy with one million marries girl with two!” Cole had some money. Linda had more. Hence the famous lyric from “Ours,”  one of my favorite Porter songs: “Mine, the inclination/ Yours, the inspiration/ Why don’t we take a vacation/ And make it all ours?”

The show breezes through their salad days as the toasts of two continents; their friendship with legendary saloon keeper Bricktop, for whom Cole wrote “Miss Otis Regrets”; and the rueful way Linda tolerated her husband’s numerous affairs with dewy-eyed boys and elegantly attired gentlemen in tailored tuxedos (though she was not above an occasional extramarital dalliance herself). Later, they invaded Elsa Maxwell’s social scene in Manhattan in a soundproof suite at the Waldorf. After their one attempt at parenthood failed, she made it a habit to befriend all of Cole’s male lovers—an odd cue for a chorus of “Let’s Be Buddies.” References to Merman, Brice, Jolson and Moss Hart lead into “Ridin’ High” and the movies. In Hollywood, surrounded by sun-tanned Adonises, he lost his discretion, and the humiliated Linda fled to Paris, dejected and depressed (a perfect lead-in to “Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor,” which is strangely missing), but returns when Cole, at 46, fell from a horse in the well-documented riding accident that left him frail, crippled and in physical agony for life. She stayed with him until she died from emphysema, in 1954. Not much of a life, if you ask me. In fact, their marriage was as miserable as Oscar Wilde’s, but you’d never know it from this. The world envied their extravagance and luxury, unaware of their angst, illness and pain, but the alleged “book” of Love, Linda, co-written by Ms. Holland and her husband, the talented Gary William Friedman, makes it all sound as sugar-frosted as a Disney fable. Directing credit goes to Ben West, although it is difficult to tell just what that means. Blame it on brevity. One hour is not long enough to crowd in enough information to make more than a brief impression of what Linda was really like.

Whatever reservations I have, they do not include the seasoned, larky singing of Stevie Holland. I don’t understand taking “Miss Otis Regrets” at a rollicking tempo that defeats both the song’s purpose and irony. But mostly, she is faultless. I wish she would forget all the talk and just stand there, like Jeanette MacDonald in the ruins of San Francisco, and sing.

Cole Porter died 45 years ago. He is still cherished. Linda is still an enigma. I had hoped to learn more.  It’s De-Lovely