WASHINGTON, September 9, 2014 – The In Series opened its 2014-2015 season this past weekend at the Source with “The Cole Porter Project: It’s All Right With Me.” A reprise of the Series’ dynamite February revue, the current edition of this made-for-the-Source show is just as fresh and topical as it was just a few months ago.
Cobbling together a basketful of well-known and little known Cole Porter hits, this show’s co-creators, Steven Scott Mazzola and Greg Stevens, created an original show that very much mirrors the classic Gershwin and Cole Porter musicals of another era.
The tried-and-true original recipe: take a batch of a given composer’s great songs, contrive a flimsy plot that incorporates those tunes, hire a bunch of singer-actors who can deliver the goods, open to rave reviews, and make money.
That formula often worked in the 1920s and 1930s, and it’s working again for the In Series in this 2014 Washington DC-based entertainment that makes good use of the political merry-go-round that is the nation’s capital city.
The show’s collaborators have created an improbable yet oddly plausible story line that charts the quixotic adventures of a pair of flyover country naïfs who invade Washington. Their mission: to lobby Congress to create a national holiday honoring their Peru, Indiana hometown hero, Cole Porter. Good luck with that, right?
The following plot summary, excerpted from our February review of the show, provides the salient details. Our cast of characters includes
… college professor … Pat (Christopher Harris, replacing Joseph Haughton in this role from the earlier production) and his young social media coordinator and former student Samantha, aka “Sam” (Sarah Anne Sillers). Hovering uneasily in the background but ready to help is Pat’s fiancée Nicole (Tammy Roberts) who’s more than a bit suspicious about Pat’s possible involvement with Sam.
That said, these Indiana co-conspirators endeavor to lobby high-power lobbyist Courtney (Randa Rouweyha) in order to enlist her aid in getting an entirely disinterested Congress to stop squabbling long enough to advance their national holiday idea. A reluctant Courtney finally agrees to help, more or less, as does Chris (Samual Keeler) a young Library of Congress staffer they meet who is also interested in helping.
Add to the pot a highly-partisan pair of legislators—a Senator (Kenneth Derby) and a Congressman (Brian Shaw)—and assorted DC denizens, and you have a contemporary satire that’s loaded with opportunities for bipartisan jokes as well as the launch pad for an impressive number of Cole Porter tunes, many familiar but many audiences have likely never heard.
Although we can’t say for certain, it seemed as if some of the jokes and musical bits of the show here and there have been updated since February. But the sparkle and wit is still there due as much to the co-creators’ respect for Porter and early Broadway musicals as it is to Porter’s bright, funny, and more-than-occasionally naughty lyrics.
Notable songs in the current production run the gamut. The opening number, “Love for Sale,” employs Porter’s catchy tune and classic lyrics in what might be the best musical joke of the evening, satirizing the blatantly corrupt dominance of today’s overpaid lobbyists who seem to control every (increasingly rare) vote that’s taken in Congress.
Other political topics are tackled as the show moves along, aided and abetted by more Porter classics and surprises including “Too Darn Hot,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Well, Did You Evah,” “Friendship,” and “Let’s Misbehave.”
Aside from newcomer Christopher Harris as Pat, February’s cast has returned for the current production, which gives the show a bit more polish, although there was little problem with the initial production.
Still the star of the show, at least in our opinion, is Sarah Anne Sillers. Her portrayal of Sam, the energetic, iPhone and email obsessed young woman who is assisting in her former professor Pat’s Cole Porter campaign marvelously catches the spirit of nearly all the idealistic young people who settle in Washington every year. Their aim is to change the world, or at least maybe make it a bit better, though in the end, they wind up as hardened cynics like everyone else in cynical Washington.
Happily, Ms. Sillers’ Sam is still in the early stages of her development and never loses a bit of her social media-obsessed charm.
Better yet, she’s surprisingly good at grasping the essentials of a 1930s Broadway show, delivering an authentic, bang-up vocal performance that nevertheless seems fresh and new even in 2014.
As Sam’s somewhat befuddled mentor, Christopher Harris steps into the role and gives it a robust twist. He has the right instincts for the role, and knows how to sell a song as well as the satirical humor that hides inside of it.
Randa Rouweyha, an opera singer by trade, has proved to be a marvelously wonderful regular with the Series over the last few seasons. Reprising her lobbyist role in this production once again reveals her delightful grasp of the vintage popular repertoire.
Dramatically, her cold, critical portrayal of Courtney provides the perfect liaison to official Washington for her clueless almost-clients. Yet quietly, Ms. Rouweyha also manages to convey the quiet desperation that haunts her personal life..
Samual Keeler returns as Sam’s fumbling love interest, Chris, inhabiting his role even more thoroughly than he did the last time around. Likewise Tammy Roberts in the somewhat underwritten role of Pat’s fiancée Nicole. Ms. Roberts’ flashback appearance as Ethel Merman at the beginning of the second act, however, is still a real showstopper as she channels Merman’s outrageously brassy personality in “Well Did You Evah!”
The rest of the returning cast members, including Kenneth Derby, Brian Shaw, Tia Wortham*, and Jase Parker proved just as funny and versatile as they did the first time around..
Replacing pianist Paul Leavitt from the February production, this production’s music director and pianist Alex Tang was understated perfection in his role as the show’s accompanist, giving a real boost to the musical fabric with a nice assist from returning bassist Ephriam Wolfolk.
Angelisa Gillyard’s choreography, Greg Stevens’ colorful minimalist sets, Donna Breslin’s costumes, and Klyph Stanford’s lighting all worked smoothly this second time around.
The only problem we detected during the Sunday matinee performance we attended was that its energy level at times seemed to droop every so slightly, perhaps due to the energy expended during the previous evening’s performance.
Nevertheless, Sunday’s nearly full house enjoyed the proceedings mightily, giving the In Series a nice boost as its fall stanza gets underway.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
*Note: Christine Browne-Munz will substitute for Tia Wortham during some performances.
Tickets and Information: Remaining performances are Friday evenings, September 12 and 19 at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday evenings, September 13 and 20 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoons (mat.), September 14 and 21 at 2:30 p.m. For tickets ($37-40, $20 student and youth) and further information, visit InSeries.org.Or call 202-204-7763.
Location and parking: Source, 1835 14th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009. On street parking can be difficult to find nearby. For local garage suggestions, visit the parking page of the InSeries website.
Pictured left to right: front row: Joseph Haughton (back) Sarah Anne Sillers, Tammy Roberts, Jase Parker, Tia Wortham. Back row from left: Kenneth Derby, Samuel Keeler, and Brian Shaw. Photo by Angelisa Gillyard.