Sunset show displays musical genius's life

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

September 19, 2013


ELM GROVE - If you want to see a classy show about a musical genius and learn about his life, his work and the people he surrounded himself with, get your tickets pronto for “Red Hot and Cole,” now playing at Sunset Playhouse.

Cole Porter is a rarity in that he was just as capable at writing melodies as he was at composing clever lyrics to go with them. His style covered quite a range of tunes, from the haunting beat of “Begin the Beguine” and “In the Still of the Night” to the sardonic humor of “Miss Otis Regrets” or the coyness of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

Director Elaine Parsons has gathered an amazing cadre of vocalists to give us this overview of Porter’s life and work, and other than a couple of glitches with the sound system (which I’m sure they will correct) it was a perfect evening. It’s the kind of show where you want to see it over again as soon as they’re finished with the first run.

Phil Stepanski is very effective as Cole. He doesn’t have the strongest singing voice, but his acting is very convincing as he lives through his growing success as well as the setback of his accident and the long process of trying to restore his crushed legs. He was a man who loved taking risks and experimenting with everything to prevent boredom.

Becky Spice is utterly fascinating as the bigger-than-life characters of Elsa Maxwell and Hedda Hopper. Another character with a strong stage presence is Tamara Martinsek, who wowed us as Ethel Merman and the pushy Bella Spewack. That woman can sing. She and Spice together could probably knock out the back wall if they teamed up.

Carrie Gray is a little bland as Linda, Porter’s wife, but she has a pure soprano voice when she sings “I Love Paris” and “In the Still of the Night.” She needs a bit more passion, though. Paula Garcia conveys the spunk of Dorothy Parker and utterly engages us when she sings - lots of energy.

Jonathan Steward has an amazing tenor voice, very moving. Parker Cristan captures the naughtiness of Noel Coward and has dancing skills as well. His rendition of “Begin the Beguine” with partner Alicia Rice is lovely. Whenever Ashley Levells takes the spotlight, she is mesmerizing to watch and listen to.

The additional members of the very able cast include Tairre Christopherson, who is memorable as Monty Wooley, Ralph Garcia as the harried George S.  Kaufman  and Scott Kopischke as Moss Hart and Sam Katz. It was fun to meet up with some of Porter’s famous contemporaries and relive portions of the Jazz Age in their presence. They definitely loved their parties.

Donna Kummer accompanies with impeccable piano styling. A.J. Simon provided a colorful set and Joanne Cunningham a very authentic array of costumes. 

“Red, Hot and Cole” runs through Oct. 6 at Sunset Playhouse, 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove. For show times and tickets, call 262-782-4430 or