MusicalFare's 'Mrs. Cole Porter' showcases the talent, charisma of Debbie Pappas - by Anthony Chase - Buffalo News digital (6/29/21)
ow starring in the one-person show, “Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter” at MusicalFare Theatre, let us sing the praises of Debbie Pappas, a charismatic performer with a lush singing voice and irresistible stage presence. Pappas has been a fixture on Buffalo’s musical theater stages for … let me be a gentleman and just say “years.”
I first saw Pappas in the 1980s, playing Joan in “Dames at Sea” at Ruben’s Backstage. Since then, she’s played a litany of musical theater roles and has won three Artie Awards. Not all musical theater performers make smooth transitions from ingenue to their later careers, especially not singers. Pappas has accomplished this with finesse and retains the supple and expressive voice that has always been the hallmark of her stage performances.
A few years ago, I spoke to Pappas after she had done yet another audition for yet another production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tzeitel, the eldest daughter had been a go-to role for her, and a new production of “Fiddler” meant almost guaranteed employment. This time, however, Pappas was not hired. She peeked at her audition card, and was horrified to read “Too old,” scribbled beside her name.
Well, for an actress, the teen years rarely endure past the age of 35, and while Pappas might have become too old to play the Tzeitel, the daughter, she would not be too old to play Golde, the mother; or Princess Puffer in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”; or Margaret Johnson in “Light in the Piazza”; or Trina in “Falsettos”; or the Stepmother in “Cinderella”; or Greta in “James Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’” She began to land and conquer these roles, one by one.
Indeed, Pappas now reveals in her credits that her most thrilling role to date is the real-life role of grandmother. (I suspect this admission is motivated by a combination of pride and an awareness that audience members will read the word “grandmother” and exclaim, “Impossible!”)
With “Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter,” MusicalFare has provided a showcase for her magnetic allure and remarkable talent. As the lights come up, Pappas is revealed in a stylish Art Deco living room, wearing a sleek evening gown of cornflower blue and midnight blue that compliments the decor. The gown is punctuated with a generous three-strand pearl necklace and large pearl bracelet. Her hair, deep brunette, is done in a classic Gatsby era style.
Pappas has been called upon to portray one of the most beautiful and fashionable women of the early 20th century.
Linda Lee Thomas had divorced her abusive first husband by the time she met Cole Porter in 1918. The couple would marry the next year, even though Porter was ten years her junior and as openly gay as it was possible to be in those days. The two would come to define jazz era glamor and sophistication, first in Paris, then in New York. At the same time, Porter’s reputation and popularity as a song writer would soar.
In the show, Pappas, as Linda Porter, narrates the story of her famed marriage with charm and humor, while highlighting its major events by singing 18 Porter songs. Sometimes the song selections are expected, as when she opens with “When a Woman’s in Love.” Sometimes the choices are surprising, or take on heavy irony, as when Linda describes how she coped with her husband’s most ardent male lovers by singing his seemingly innocent, “Let’s Be Buddies.”
Pappas demonstrates the value of experience with a performance that is well-paced and builds to a rewarding crescendo. She saves the full power and fluidity of her voice for the most unlikely vocal highlight of the evening, Porter’s “Wunderbar,” from his late-career masterpiece, “Kiss Me Kate.”
I’m not sure, but it’s possible that Pappas forgot some lyrics on the opening night. It was during Porter’s playfully risqué “Let’s Do It,” with its famously endless list of double entendres. The complex lyrics she starts to sing are not by Porter at all, but by Noël Coward, written for his Las Vegas act. At one point, she turned to the audience and entreated us to provide the next rhyme. It was an amusing bit, but then I thought, “Has she actually forgotten the words?” Then I thought, “Who cares? She’s fabulous! This is divine!”
The production has been directed by Norm Sham, who is married to Pappas. Music direction is by Theresa Quinn. The smart set and lights are by Chris Cavanagh, who has also provided expert sound. Kari Drozd designed the costume. Susan Drozd designed the wig and make-up. The total effect is wunderbar.