With a nice pun on the songwriter’s name and what bad girls and boys have to look forward to from Santa, A Little Cole in Your Stocking, Aurora Theatre’s Holidays Cabaret of Cole Porter tunes, could have gotten off to a rough start on Wednesday night’s opening when pianist Billy Philadelphia, of the popular husband and wife duo with singer Meg Mackay, was out sick. But bolstered by the artistry of Larry Dunlap at the keyboard, Mackay turned in a funny, touching and all-round fine evening of Porter tunes that touted both her own professionalism and sensitivity to the material.
Running the Porterian gamut from Kiss Me Kate’s “I Hate Men” (featuring lines like “He may have hair upon his chest,/But, sister, so has Lassie!”) to the big romantic numbers of desire, longing and a deliciously self-conscious restraint, Mackay made contact, turning out 20 tunes and an encore, followed by a sing-a-long of “Jingle Bells,” in about an hour-and-a-half or so, all with a pacing that featured each discrete mood well-framed by Mackay’s delivery, mixing comedy with warmth, and Dunlap’s sure touch on piano.
Beginning with “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (“I was a humdrum person/Leading a life apart”) then plunging into songs from Kiss Me Kate and others, Mackay demurely made the most of each, for the most part standing in place, though never still, relying on her fluid gestures and elastic facial expressions to add emphasis to phrases dreamily prolonged or tartly tossed off.
Mackay’s something of a cut-up, even a clown, but one of the nice surprises—as well as genuine pleasures—of the evening was her success with the romantic numbers, a success the well-placed comic tunes help set up. From “Night And Day” and “In The Still Of The Night,” she gained strength and assurance, carrying over into her fine second set, peaking with great numbers that many singers coast on, performing broadly, like “Begin The Beguine” or “Just One Of Those Things” in which the wistful lines are drawn out and both singer and pianist play with the melody in an intricate tracery.
Ending on “My Heart Belongs To Daddy,” a song that has belonged to one singer for six decades (a possession that’s survived a clever theft by Eartha Kitt), Mackay’s delivery gives the venerable Mary Martin vehicle her own comic spin and musical bounce, with Dunlap elegantly jumping right along. This almost sassy close turns quickly into an touching encore that may be Meg’s best, “Everytime We Say Goodbye” (”I die a little/ ... wonder why a little/Why the gods above me/Who must be in the know/Think so little of me/They allow you to go”).
Three Christmas songs were sung (Porter didn’t write Christmas songs), “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (Judy Garland’s number from Meet Me in St. Louis) and the sprightly “Mrs. Claus” with lyrics by the East Bay’s Nancy Schimmel (“Who spends Christmas Eve all alone?/ ... Who takes the stains from the old red jacket?/Who takes the reins when Santa can’t hack it?? ... Who has to put up with a saint?/ Mrs. Claus!”) and the Karen Carpenter tune, “Merry Christmas, Darling,” meant as a holiday card to Aurora’s Artistic Director Tom Ross, who collaborated with Mackay in a Carpenters Christmas show at The Marsh, performed with just a hint, an edge of the late singer’s style.
Seasonal tunes shoehorned in or not, and despite the absence of crowd-pleaser Billy Philadelphia, A Little Cole in Your Stocking concluded its opening night as a thoroughly satisfying cabaret alternative to the usual holiday fare.
A Little Cole in Your Stocking plays at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Dec. 23, 28, 29 and 30. For information call 843-4822 or see www.auroratheatre.org.