May 31, 2008
Basking in a World Where Anything Goes
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
"Is it to rescue or is it to wreck?/Is it an ache in the heart/Or just a pain in the neck?" So wrote Cole Porter about serial infatuation in his 1938 movie song "At Long Last Love." To hear such delicious turns of phrase delivered with meaningful hesitations and a raised eyebrow by Jeff Harnar, who completes a four-night tribute to Porter at the Metropolitan Room on Saturday, is to find yourself grinning with pleasure.
Known for his meticulously researched and assembled cabaret shows, Mr. Harnar balances the savory wit and boyish yearning of a composer whom he joked had "a whim of iron." I last saw Mr. Harnar two years ago at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, where he performed a tribute to Cy Coleman - a rare mismatch between a mild-mannered crooner and a hard-boiled composer whose songs demand a brazen theatricality. Porter and Harnar, however, are a perfect fit.
Mr. Harnar has developed into an accomplished mimic. His imitation of Jimmy Durante singing the comical gender-bending song "A Little Skipper From Heaven Above," from the 1936 show "Red, Hot, and Blue!," is dead-on. The show alternates tongue-twisting patter songs and ballads to underscore Porter’s dichotomous personality. Here was an ultimate example of the truism that the worst cynics are also the biggest romantics.
Mr. Harnar, accompanied on Thursday by Alex Rybeck on piano and Mark Winkler on bass, plucked "I’ve Got You Under My Skin" from the prizefighting ring where Frank Sinatra enshrined it and carried it to the dreamy, emotionally vulnerable realm of the besotted suitor. Crooning "In the Still of the Night" and "Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye," Mr. Harnar projected the tremulous, adolescent ingenuousness of a more innocent era.
Porter’s tongue-in-cheek worldliness whooshed back in a final rush with "Can-Can," the nonsensical invocation to join a global menagerie that includes apes, pelicans, hippos and rhinos, as well as humans, in a global kick line. In Porter’s language, "If a gangly Anglican can/If in Lesbos, a pure Lesbian can/Baby, you can can-can too."