WASHINGTON, March 4, 2014 – The always-innovative In Series is currently scoring another DC entertainment coup with “The Cole Porter Project: It’s All Right With Me,” now in its final week at the Source. Highlighting the incredible work of Cole Porter—likely America’s greatest composer-lyricist of all time—the In Series is again up to one of the things they do the best; namely, crafting a brand new and incredibly enjoyable musical revue-cabaret in much the same manner as Porter himself might have crafted one of his popular musicals back in the 1930s.
In the good old days of vintage Broadway and Broadway style musicals, composers would typically read into a grab back of old songs and new ones to create a flimsy and usually humorous plotline that served mostly as an excuse to introduce each of the songs. Audiences in most respects could have cared less about the dramatic results. They were there to hear some great music and catch some nifty dancing, and the plot was merely an excuse to stitch everything together.
Cole Porter was a master at this sort of thing, creating memorable and surprisingly complex popular songs with lyrics that were at once highly inventive, amusing, satirical and often more than a bit risqué. Better yet, when crafting songs to go along with the plot of a show, Porter’s lyrics themselves helped advance the plotline rather than serving as simple set pieces or excuses for another production number.
In this, he clearly served as a model for his current songwriter-lyricist successor, the extraordinarily popular if a bit highbrow Stephen Sondheim who employs his bag of Porter-like magic with a dense, often ironic late twentieth century twist.
Very much in this spirit, Steven Scott Mazzola and Greg Stevens, the co-creators of the In Series’ Cole Porter show have constructed a witty 2014 Washington DC-based plotline based on contemporary spin-cycle politics. Better yet, they prove remarkably adept at incorporating—and occasionally tweaking—Porter’s original lyrics in such a way as to advance their contemporary story in the same way Porter might have done it: to advance their own new story line.
That story line is at once trivial and true. Mssrs. Mazzola and Stevens focus on the adventures of a pair of Midwest out-of-towners who arrive in DC with an impossible dream: to lobby Congress to pass a new law to create a national holiday to honor their favorite composer. He’s Cole Porter, of course.
It goes almost without saying that our Midwestern more-or-less country bumpkins hail from Porter’s home state of Indiana. Hence, their partisanship on behalf of the composer as well as their cluelessness into the increasingly self-serving ways of Washington and Washingtonians, none of whom have much interest in advancing their cause.
Spearheading this quixotic drive to honor Porter are a college professor named Pat (Joseph Haughton)* 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.
Notable songs include “Love for Sale,” “Too Darn Hot,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Well, Did You Evah,” “Friendship,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Just One of Those Things,” and a host of others, all wittily woven into the plot remarkably close to the way Porter himself would have done it.
The show owes its irresistible brightness not only to its silly but sparkling script, but also to the sharp performance of its stellar ensemble cast, which performs as crisply as any we can remember in our long history of attending In Series performances.
At the top of our list is Sarah Anne Sillers, an amazingly polished relative newcomer to this ensemble. As Sam, she has the role of the intelligent, quirky, Washington political newcomer down pat. Ms. Sillers’ “social media coordinator” is at once savvy and silly, buried, as all twenty-somethings seem to be these days—in the constant stream of trivia that issues endlessly forth from her omnipresent iPhone.
But better yet, Ms. Sillers is simultaneously capable of channeling the spirit of those popular 1930s shows in her portrayal, grasping the attitude, character, and mood perfectly even as it’s updated for a contemporary 21st century audience. Add to this her sassy, knowing, and perfectly calibrated vocals, and you’re looking at one impressive and winning performance.
As Sam’s mentor Pat in last Sunday’s performance, Joseph Haughton is equally adept at spinning character and vocals into one as his character tries to overcome by earnestness what he lacks in the way of cynical DC-style political skills. You sympathize with the hopelessness of his task while still cheering for this contemporary “Mr. Smith” to come out on top.
Randa Rouweyha has the efficiency and coldness of a Washington lobbyist down pat, preferring, as we might expect, to avoid doing work for naïve rubes while favoring high-paying corporate big-hitters instead. This is a bit of a different turn for Ms. Rouweyha, who is actually an uncommonly fine dramatic opera singer. But she approaches the role of Courtney with great skill, and eventually gets more opportunities to bloom vocally as the show progresses—opportunities she exploits with winning skill.
As Sam’s bumbling love interest Chris, Samual Keeler round is a winner as well, both as a singer and an actor. Ditto Tammy Roberts in the somewhat feckless role of Pat’s confused fiancée Nicole, although her amazingly spot-on turn as Ethel Merman in a ‘30s flashback sequence comes close to stealing the entire show, so adept is she at mirroring that legendary stage star’s ear-splitting brassiness and swaggering mannerisms.
A fine team effort by the remaining ensemble players—Kenneth derby, Brian Shaw, Tia Wortham, and Jase Parker also helps put this show on the must-see map.
Pianist Paul Leavitt, accompanied by Ephriam Wolfolk on bass, did a stand-up job keeping the musical pace together in the performance we attended. He’ll be alternating with popular Washington professor and pianist Frank Conlon during these performances.
Kudos as well to the show’s authentic choreography by Angelisa Gillyard, Greg Stevens’ simple but funny and evocative sets, Donna Breslin’s generally DC-severe costuming, and Klyph Stanford’s lighting arrangements.
The In Series’ Cole Porter review is proving to be one of this ensemble’s more popular recent shows. However, as In Series founder Carla Hübner pointed out prior to last Sunday’s performance, much of the audience for the show has been of a certain age—one that remembers Cole Porter well, either having grown up in the ‘30s or being raised as children of that generation.
Ms. Hübner expressed some hope that this show might attract a few members of the younger set as well, and we’d endorse that appeal. We live in a time when rising generations encounter little of past history, musical or otherwise. Getting tickets to this delightful performance would be a marvelous way to get back in touch with what was arguably the golden age of American popular music.
Cole Porter is a brilliant example of the highly creative and remarkably inventive—and iconoclastic—America musical spirit at work. Like Carla Hübner, we, too, would encourage younger audiences to give this show a try. We’re confident they’ll enjoy the efforts of this one-of-a-kind genius who become one of the American stage musical’s greatest founding fathers.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
*Note: Christopher Harris will perform the roll of Pat on March 7 and 8.
For Tickets and Information: Remaining performances are Fri 3/7 at 8 p.m., Sat 3/8 at 3 p.m. (mat.) and at 8p.m., and Sun 3/9 at 3pm (mat.) NOTE: Monday’s performance (3/3) was postponed due to weather conditions. Tickets will be honored at a rescheduled performance which will be announced as soon as possible via the Series’ website. For this and other information, and to purchase tickets ($20-38 plus service fee), 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.