Jukebox musicals are still multiplying like rabbits on Broadway, but even a promising play full of legendary songs can languish on the shelf without a producer's support. That helps explain why Paul Gilger, who conceived Gigolo: The New Cole Porter Revue, was so emotionally overwhelmed when we spoke on Friday night following his show's premiere at Winter Park Playhouse. "I can hardly put it into words," Gilger gushed as the opening night crowd dispersed. "I am totally in debt to the Playhouse and to Orlando. I never dreamed that the show could be what I saw tonight."
Gigolo, the first alumnus of Winter Park Playhouse's Florida Festival of New Musicals to get a full production, opened the theater's 2018-2019 season. (It runs through Aug. 19; call 407-645-0145 or visit winterparkplayhouse.org for tickets.) But its journey actually began back in 2012, when Gilger – an architect by trade who designs stage sets on the side – was given one week to assemble a Cole Porter benefit concert for the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, California.
"Usually I'm not the kind of writer to write on commission," Gilger says. "I tend to wait for an inspiration, which is the luxury of not having theater as my vocation."
Gilger found that inspiration in The Last Playboy, Shawn Levy's biography of Porfirio "Rubi" Rubirosa, the notorious playboy who wedded five women (including heiresses Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton) and was supposedly author Ian Fleming's model for James Bond. "I had that epiphany moment. I'm literally in bed and couldn't sleep, so I'd been reading this book ... It turns out Porfirio played guitar, and used to sing a song called 'I'm a Gigolo.' I saw that in the book and sat bolt upright in bed."
Though Rubi's real-life story provided the seed of his script's storyline, Gilger emphasizes that "even though it's inspired by Rubirosa, this is a Cole Porter revue. ... I want people to leave the show talking about Cole Porter and his lyrics." He deliberately omitted Rubi's tragic end in a car wreck because, he says, "We don't need dark endings right now."
Paul also admits that he isn't a Porter expert, but says that worked to his advantage: "I'd only seen Kiss Me Kate and Anything Goes. ... I didn't have all of the Cole Porter in my head to hold me back – sometimes if you know too much about something you get stalled in the details."
The pairing of Porter and the playboy earned a positive reception in its initial incarnations, including a 2013 outdoor concert at Francis Ford Coppola's winery. But the promising play went dormant until after Winter Park Playhouse successfully produced Gilger's Jerry Herman revue, Showtune, in 2016, and asked him for another script.
In Winter Park's world-premiere production, Zach Nadolski plays the titular Lothario who woos a trio of wealthy women – a Manhattan socialite (Melissa Minyard), a Hollywood starlet (Kelly Morris Rowan) and a European countess (Natalie Cordone) – before falling for the new girl in town (Alyssa Flowers). It's no surprise that this exceptionally talented cast can articulate every syllable of standards like "You're the Top" and "Let's Do It" with flawless intonation. But what makes this effervescent show so entertaining is that the performers don't merely sing the songs, but act out every moment.
Gilger credits director-choreographer Roy Alan with transforming Gigolo from a "park and bark" casual cabaret into a sung-through Broadway musical that is essentially a Cole Porter opera. "He's very rare. There are few really great choreographer-directors," Paul says, comparing Alan to Tommy Tune and Bob Fosse for his mastery of storytelling through movement.
Winter Park Playhouse also lives up to its reputation for professionalism with Gigolo's polished production values, from Daniel Cooksley and Cameron Gagne's Art Deco decor to Seth Schrager and Angelica Rose Trombo's sequin-tastic costumes. Most importantly, musical director Christopher Leavy and orchestrator-instrumentalist Ned Wilkinson (who blows a mean horn as "Gabriel" in the show's joyous finale) allow Porter's timeless tunes to speak for themselves without unnecessary embellishment; as Gilger told me, "These 26 songs are jewels, and I feel a responsibility to present the songs as he would have."
Porter's melodies may be immortal, but lyrics about "appetizing young love for sale" can seem dated (to say the least) in today's #MeToo environment. While he concedes that "this may not be the most politically correct show on the planet," Gilger contends that Rubi was actually an early male feminist who ran counter to his abusive machismo-centric culture.
"I love powerful women, and if you look at the women he was with, they were all very powerful. They were nobody's fool, and they turned the tables," says Gilger. "For me, the women are in control, and that's what I tried to convey in the piece."
Now that Gigolo has opened, Gilger says he has two goals for the show. The first is "to respect Cole Porter ... I want people to feel like they're actually watching a Cole Porter musical that he would have been part of."
The second is for Winter Park Playhouse to "make so much money off this show that they can buy their own theater. They so deserve to get rid of that mortgage that hangs over their head, and I'll do everything I can to help." It's too soon to speak on the latter, but as for the former, the skies were full of thunder throughout Friday's debut performance; it's not hard to imagine Porter was applauding from the great beyond.