MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Strollers theater group couldn’t have picked a better way to kick off its 85th season than with its staged production of “Cole,” a musical revue celebrating the life and work of Cole Porter, the renowned composer and lyricist whose songs are still performed on Broadway, more than 50 years after his death.
The Strollers, Maplewood’s community theater company, has been active since 1932 and draws community members from throughout the area to participate in its shows. The company welcomes participants regardless of background and skill level to be an actor, director, stage manager, costumer, set builder and more. While “Cole” might seem an ambitious show for a non-professional theater company to perform, they hit it out of the park.
The show is a mixture of unconnected Porter songs — essentially a Cole cabaret — and narration providing a glimpse into Porter’s eventful life. The two-hour-long show boasted more than 35 of Porter’s songs from the well-known “I Get a Kick Out of You” to the less common “Bingo Eli Yale.” While the sets and costumes were scant, the voices of the actors were anything but.
Though not every song wowed, there were many standouts, especially from soloists. Aubrey Skolnick’s performance of “The Lost Liberty Blues” was just plain fun; Skolnick’s stage presence and evident enjoyment of being on stage permeated the air and her vocals backed that up. “You Don’t Know Paree,” performed by Ricky Cortez, a professional who has performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse and on Broadway National Tours, was sad and sweet. Cortez’s strong voice instilled his performance with deep emotion, which was felt throughout the space.
As these two had excelled in the first act, it was no surprise when their duet, the famous “It’s De-Lovely,” in the second act was nearly a showstopper. The two stayed true to the song, which is both beautiful and playful. And their acting was some of the strongest on that stage.
A second duet pair who knocked the audience’s socks off was Norman Metz and Jeff Taylor, who performed “Be a Clown” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” together. The comedy duo’s performances were reminiscent of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s “Moses Supposes” in “Singin’ in the Rain.” And the two were just as delightful apart, helping to kick off the medley of songs at the beginning of Act II, with Metz performing “You Do Something to Me” and “You’ve Got That Thing” with Beth Haiet Meyer and Vlada Borisova-Duran, respectively, and with Taylor performing “Let’s Misbehave,” bringing an endearing level of roguishness to the song.
Other standout soloists included Borisova-Duran’s wistful “Love For Sale” with her incredibly strong vocals, Leon Neal’s soul-piercing “In the Still of the Night,” and Claire McKinney-Mulhern’s dreamy and sweet “I Concentrate on You.” Despite the lighting flaws — sometimes the spotlight would illumine an empty spot of stage and not head over to the featured singer until their part had ended — each singer shone brightly.
Beyond impeccable singing, the most delightful part of the show was watching the sheer thrill felt by those on stage. Each of them seemed truly to love the show and to love performing.
A shout out must also go to musical director Ann Marie Cerciello and stage manager Kelley Blessing; while Cerciello played the piano, Blessing played everything else, including keyboard.
While the entire show was enjoyable, the second act really highlighted the talents of the cast and captivated the audience in a way the first act hadn’t. Part of this was likely due to the shedding of opening night jitters on Nov. 4, but also because the second act features more songs from later in Porter’s career, after he had become an established songwriter, writing songs of better quality. Additionally, the first half of the second act featured no narration and was merely a medley of more than 10 songs, each song seamlessly flowing into the next, with all the performers remaining onstage.
All in all, it is a show not to be missed.
Remaining performances of The Strollers’ “Cole” will be Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 19. There will be a Sunday matinee performance at 2 p.m. on Nov. 13. Performances are staged at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Durand Road in Maplewood.
This show features direction by Cynthia Ross, choreography by Paula Skolnick and Rob Pape, production by Judy French, sets and lighting by John Mendlovitz, and props by Yvonne Perry.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.TheStrollers.org or call 973-761-8453.