by Jillian Carter
Beatrice Community Players is closing their season with Love, Linda, a one-woman musical about the life of Mrs. Cole Porter. Not knowing much about Cole Porter, let alone his wife, I was intrigued and excited to go. There’s nothing like entertaining live theatre that also teaches you a thing or two!
While I say I don’t know much about Cole Porter, turns out I knew more than I realized. Director Jamie Ulmer points out in the program that most people know his songs and just don’t realize it. If I had any doubt, it was put to rest by the medley of tunes about halfway through the show. I could have sung most of them right along with the band.
This show is not really about Cole Porter’s impressive catalogue, though. It is about Linda Porter and her nontraditional marriage to Cole. I don’t want to put labels on it, because as Linda says early on, “Marriage isn’t a can of soup,” but suffice to say that Cole Porter was interested in men and women. Of course this has been interpreted in many ways by historians and gossips alike, but Love, Linda presents their marriage as an understanding filled with love and… understanding. In addition to the sexual and romantic issues presented by this arrangement, the show delves into Linda’s struggle for recognition in her famous husband’s shadow and appreciation for her “abilities as an inspirational muse.” This is all showcased through Cole Porter’s own music, with songs used in surprising ways and intriguing contexts. The book, written by Stevie Holland and Gary William Friedman, is a true work of art, blending Linda’s monologue seamlessly into sung performance.
Of course none of that would matter if Jean Spilker weren’t a powerhouse of a performer. The sheer stamina it takes to star in a one-person show boggles the mind, but Spilker pulls it off seemingly effortlessly, from her delivery to her ease in navigating stairs in heels and a full-length gown. (Side note: I want that dress! And those cheekbones!) She is ageless/timeless, pulling off youthful songs as well as more mature numbers, with equal aplomb. “Let’s Misbehave” could be ridiculous in lesser hands, but it is far from it in Jean’s more than capable hands. There were a couple times I felt she was specifically fixing me with her formidable gaze (not likely in the third row), and I got actual chills. Spilker’s Linda Porter comes across as an affable, approachable, and yet unattainable woman, with whom you’d want to get a gin rickey.
Highlights of Love, Linda include the remarkable production values that Community Players, Inc. is well known for. A one-person show demands extra visual interest to keep the audience’s attention, and this show delivers it in spades. Ulmer’s lighting design almost magically transforms the simple set from a New York City living room to a Parisian jazz club, and Spilker from an elite socialite to a jazz chanteuse. Add Tyler Rinne’s scenic painting, the use of levels, smoke, drapery, and slides, and it’s impossible to tune out or lose focus. My favorite moments were the beginning of “I Love Paris,” which was filled with wistful emotion, the unexpected use of “Let’s Be Buddies,” and the raucous good time of “Miss Otis Regrets.”
Overall, Love, Linda is an invitation to experience Linda Porter’s life, trials and tribulations, and great love. As complicated as her relationship may seem from the outside, she says she married Cole with her “eyes wide open.” And I would expect nothing less from the woman I met last night.
If you go: Remaining performances are Friday and Saturday, May 21 and 22 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, May 23 at 2:00 pm. Tickets can be bought online, by phone (402-228-1801), or at the Community Players box office. All showings are at Community Players Playhouse, 412 Ella Street in Beatrice.
Jillian Carter is a local playwright, director, and actor, as well as the managing editor of Appearing Locally. She makes her living off theatre, including as a role playing consultant for the UNL Center on Children, Families, and the Law. As if that weren’t enough, she also has four kids, a husband, and a library that has grown out of control.