BWW Reviews: THE COLE PORTER PROJECT at the In Series is Delightful, Delicious and De-Lovely
It's delightful, it's delicious - it's cliché to use the lyrics from "It's De-Lovely" when describing a Cole Porter production, I know. But when it comes to a production which not only tells his story, but seeks to educate the audience about why Porter was one of the geniuses of American musical theater, it only seems appropriate. The Cole Porter Project at the In Series is a charming tribute to Porter and one that shouldn't be missed by theater enthusiasts or anyone who appreciates well-composed songs with intelligent, witty, sophisticated, proactive and timeless lyrics.
The Cole Porter Project follows a format similar to other musical revues which celebrate the work of its namesake. It feature's 35 songs designed to introduce and educate the audience about Cole Porter, as well as entertain them along the way. Unlike the revues Side by Side by Sondheim, Jerry's Girls and Now and Forever: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show isn't stacked with Porter's best known songs. Audiences will be surprised to hear some of Porter's earlier, dare I say, forgotten songs which is another reason why The Cole Porter Project should not be missed!
Direct from Peru, Indiana, Porter's birthplace, The Cole Porter Project follows fans Pat and Samantha as they lobby Washington trying to get Porter's birthday (June 9, 1891) recognized as a national holiday. Working with a high-powered lobbyist named Courtney, Library of Congress music specialist Chris, several members of Congress and an ensemble of DC characters, Pat and Samantha work the town to make sure that Porter is not forgotten. Granted, the plot is a bit flimsy, but this only seems fitting considering who the show is heralding. Porter first gained notoriety when Broadway consisted of musicals featuring weak plots dictated by song. The Cole Porter Project cleverly reminds us that Porter was one of the composers that changed the musical into the form it is today, one where plot dictates the music, lyrics and choreography.
Co-conceivers and co-directors, Steven Scott Mazzola and Greg Stevens, were smart to set the show in modern day DC. The result is a piece that not only stays true to Porter's spirit but makes him come alive for a new generation of theatergoers. For example, the last scene in Act I features the cast going out on 14th Street while singing a medley of songs consisting of "Let's Step Out," "Too Darn Hot" and "It's De-Lovely." Regardless of the songs being written more than half-a-century ago, the lyrics still perfectly capture the sentiment of being young and going out on the town! Is there any better illustration of the timelessness of Porter's music?
As a tribute show, The Cole Porter Project is "C'est Magnifique!" in the way it introduces and reminds us about who Porter was and why he still matters. However, the story itself isn't exactly "Ridin' High." After an energetic first act, The Cole Porter Project tends to drag in Act II. A major issue is that the show contains roughly 10 of Porter's best known hits, with 20 other of his lesser known songs. It's admirable not loading the show with crowd pleasers, but by Act II, Mazzola and Stevens would have been well-served using a rousing anthem like "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" to jump-start the show.
As Pat and Samantha, Joseph Haughton and Sarah Ann Sillers contained the perfect level of chemistry to make us believe that they were Porter fanatics. Even Sillers iPhone cover was a blown-up picture of Porter. Siller's wonderfully captured Porter's humor with "Find Me a Primitive Man" which was set on a red-line metro platform. Whereas Haughton perfectly navigated everything from romantic duets like "From Alpha and Omega" to solos such as "Don't Fence Me In." If Haughton and Sillers were to be successful portraying the ultimate Cole Porter fans, then they needed to master his music, especially his lyrics, and they certainly did just that.
The Cole Porter Project supporting characters were successful to varying degrees. As lobbyist Courtney, Randa Rouweyha certainly looked the part of a power-broker but sadly she didn't sound the part. Despite giving a stirring torch-like rendition of "Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please" from Panama Hattie, Rouweyha's soprano voice seemed out-of-place for a Porter tribute show. At moments her voice easily overwhelmed that of her castmates.
Samual Keeler gives an endearing performance as Chris. As Samantha's love interest and Pat's Porter-soul mate, his performance was evocative of Lord Evelyn Oakleigh from Anything Goes. Keeler may seem one-dimensional at first, but his rendition of "The Gypsy in Me" demonstrates he's more than just your standard government worker!
Special recognition amongst the ensemble must also be given to Kenneth Derby and Brian Shaw, who play members of Congress. Their Act I scene features them trading legislative favor's before eventually serenading each other with "You're The Top" complete with Obamacare and tax-reform references. It was hysterical and a show-stopping moment that brought the house down!
The Cole Porter Project features bassist Ephriam Wolfolk and rotating pianists Frank Conlon and Paul Leavitt, who also serve as the show's musical directors. This small, but capable band, beautifully keeps the show moving, although with some puzzling format changes. "Let's Misbehave" is performed as a duet rather than a foxtrot while "Just One of Those Things" is given a more cynical tone.
Steven's set design gives the show a collegiate feeling complete with cue cards indicating each scene's setting and painted backdrop of the Washington monument. Donna Breslin costume design captured both the formality of Washington and elegance of the Porter era on Broadway.
The Cole Porter Project doesn't strive to take its story seriously, only its subject. It's a heartfelt tribute to someone who enormously enhanced the great American song book, redefined the American musical and brought joy to millions of people. Any chance to hear 35 Porter songs well sung accompanied by a piano and bass is not to be missed and neither is The Cole Porter Project.
Run time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. The In Series production of The Cole Porter Project runs thru March 9th at The Source 1835 14th St., NW, Washington, DC 20009. For tickets please call (202) 204-7763 or purchase them online.
Graphic: (L-R) Joseph Haughton, Randa Rouweyha, Samual Keeler, Sarah Anne Sillers. Credit: Angelisa Gillyard for the In Series production of The Cole Porter Project