This year, Off the Wall Theatre opens a holiday show just a dozen days before the 25th. Cole & Noël is a pleasant contrast to the group’s long-running variety/sketch comedy-style Holiday Punch shows. It’s a 2-hour tribute to Cole Porter and Noël Coward featuring a breezy mix of tunes by both songwriters. Off the Wall’s Dale Gutzman plays the late Noël. Jeremy Welter plays the ghost of Cole. They are joined by a bursting ensemble of Off the Wall regulars including seasoned veterans and those who have only recently been introduced to one of Milwaukee’s smallest stages. There’s a rich pool of talent in cast of over a dozen performers ranging from the seasoned talents of Gladys Chmiel to the fresh-faced energy of Ava Danzer.
The traditional holiday show with Off the Wall in years past has had an enjoyably scattered energy about it. The mixture of music and sketches and such is kind of charming, but it can feel a bit like the show is reaching for too many different things at once. Cole & Noel has a much smoother, more elegant feel about it. By focussing on only the works and lives of two different songwriters, Gutzman and company give Cole & Noël a solidly coherent emotional center that makes for a nice couple of hours in a tiny space. Everything about the show feels safe, comfortable and cozy. It’s a perfect fit for a a relatively calm, snowless late December in Milwaukee.
Gutzman and Welter play contrasting musical legends. There’s a witty animosity between the two of them that helps carry along the energy of the show quite nicely from beginning to end. Porter and Coward have come down from heaven to do a little holiday show. The overall premise is fine. Having Gutzman and Welter play a couple of old legends kind of gets in the way, though. One would be hard pressed to find any actor to live-up to Porter and Coward’s statures. It might have been better to have Gutzman and Welter simply appear onstage as themselves, each relaying a glowing appreciation for Porter or Coward without attempting to actually portray them. Gutzman and Welter are fine by themselves. Can’t this just be a small party honoring the work of two greats? Do they have to actually show-up as well? Is it really any of their business that people are still loving their music decades after they’re gone? Shouldn’t they just be getting on with whatever it is dead songwriters do? Seriously though: attempting to channel the spirits of legends only hampers the fun...but it's only a minor detail because this show IS fun.
There’s impressive talent in the ensemble. Liz Norton provides a powerful voice to a number of songs including Porter’s classic “Anything Goes.” Jake Russell makes another charismatic appearance onstage. His rather deft lyrical tango with Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love,” is a casual high point of the show. The sharply lyrical side of the evening is balanced-out by some clever sensuality. Caitlin Kujawski Compton delivers a playful sensuality dancing around Porter’s “But In the Morning, No!”
One again it’s remarkable just how much Gutzman and company are able to cram into a space that’s not much bigger than a small corner of the lobby of the Tenth Street Theatre. Choreographer Kristin Pagenkopf has had a great deal of experience working in the space. Pagenkopf makes the tiny space seem spacious with very tightly precise choreography. This is a tiny, little show, but it feels like a big, sprawling party in the shadow of bigger theatre at the end of a year. This is easily one of the best holiday shows Off the Wall has ever done.
Off the Wall Theatre’s Cole & Noël runs through Dec. 31st at Off the Wall’s space on 127 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more visit Off the Wall online or call 414-484-8874.