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'Cole Porter’s You Never Know' sparkles at Meadow Brook Theatre

Mathew Schwartz, Sarah Parnicky, Stephanie Wahl, and Ron Williams in Cole Porter's "You Never Know" at Meadow Brook Theatre.
Mathew Schwartz, Sarah Parnicky, Stephanie Wahl, and Ron Williams in Cole Porter's "You Never Know" at Meadow Brook Theatre. Photo by Rick Smith

"Cole Porter's You Never Know" at Meadow Brook Theatre

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Did you ever wish you could travel back in time to the ‘20s, when the high-society set lounged around Paris wearing exquisite fashions while exchanging bon mots in their art deco penthouse suites? The next best thing to taking your own time machine is to take in a Cole Porter musical, and Meadow Brook Theatre has just the ticket. They’ve dusted off a rarely performed Porter show that’s been restored to the original concept as a small-cast, one-set musical. This production features lesser known songs from other Porter properties to create an evening of unadulterated musical comedy indulgence. “You Never Know” has the sophisticated banter, the lilting music and the outrageous lyrics that only Cole Porter can deliver. And with a brilliant cast and dynamic orchestra, this time capsule is worth riding again and again.

The book by Rowland Leigh is an adaption of a play called “By Candlelight,” which is also the title of a signature song shamelessly deployed by the men in this show to woo romantically inclined women. The story is deliciously typical of the era. The Baron Rommer has developed a passion for Herr Baltin’s wife. Meanwhile, the jealous Herr Baltin has invited the Baron’s mistress to accompany him on a trip. The Baron’s valet Gaston has become smitten with a society woman who mistakes him for the Baron, and in a generous moment, the Baron assumes the livery of the valet to help his man enjoy a little romance. But no one is exactly who they pretend to be, and by the end of this play, after many laughs and a string of charming songs, all six characters have paired off into three unlikely alliances.

“The Parisian society before the depression hit was such a ridiculously beautiful time for those lucky enough to be in high society,” says MBT artistic director Travis W. Walter, who also directs this production. ”Then you add songs like ‘Let’s Misbehave’ and ‘At Long Last Love’ by Cole Porter, and I know our audiences will love this musical as our season closer.”

Walter’s hard-working cast sings and dances up a gale-force storm. Ron Williams as Baron Rommer and Mathew Schwartz, as his butler Gaston, make an elegant duo of leading men, with pure tenors and suave dance moves right out of the old MGM playbook. Stephanie Wahl (Mme. Baltin), Brandi Knox (Ida Courtney) and Sarah Parnicky (Maria) bring to mind those great actresses from the golden age of musicals who could sing, dance and deliver laughs with a knowing nonchalance. Anthony Guest as the blustering Herr Baltin rounds out the comic relief in a manner that recalls the Teutonic pomposity of the late Sig Ruman.

The sumptuous scenic design by Kristen Gribbin is perfect in its contemporary elegance and is beautifully lit by Matthew J. Fick. The costume design by Corey Globke, especially the gorgeous gowns, summon the best of Erté in the way they drape the figure, flow with the latest dance steps, and drip with decadent ostrich feathers. For a relatively small show, this production enjoys a big sound, with musical direction by Greg Kenna, who doubles at the piano, plus a seven-person band. Period choreography is created by John Sloan. Sound design is by Mike Duncan with Terry Carpenter as the stage manager.

“Cole Porter’s You Never Know” is a rare treat to be savored; it plays at Meadow Brook Theatre on the campus of Oakland University through June 22, 2014. Tickets range from $25 to $40 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or by purchasing them online. Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing. Meadow Brook Theatre is located on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester.