There are few things more charming, more chic, more certain to please than a Cole Porter song. These time-tested pleasures, as tuneful as they are clever, do not tend to disappoint. As such, I entered the opening night of the In Series’ new Cole Porter Project: It’s All Right with Me with the high hopes. The company, which is devoted to presenting an inclusive repertoire of art song from all eras, billed “9 singers, 36 songs, a mini-jazz combo, the works” suggesting a cabaret, revue, or even just a concert—I thought there was little room to go wrong.
What I saw, however, was a full-fledged musical with plot, character, costumes and set—a domain in which much can go wrong, and did. A new book by Steven Scott Mazzola and Greg Stevens connected the songs in relatively integrated pastiche of the unabashedly silly Cole-Porter musical comedy, entrusting the nine “singers” with a substantial text, in which they played out the story of a cheery Midwestern gang lobbying D.C. for a Cole Porter national holiday. I wasn’t sure whether to fault the spectacle, the script, or the broad, presentational acting for my disappointment, but in the end what might have been charming, chic, and clever cabaret was supplanted by a corny, clunky, and far-too lengthy play.
To substantiate these disparaging conclusions brings me little joy, but I owe it to the readers and artists alike not to prosecute without evidence: The set seemed to depict an Italian restaurant, with a checkered tile floor, fake footlights, a faux-paneled arch, and a shimmery red-and-gold curtain that parted to reveal a silhouette of the D.C. skyline. The environment evoked neither Jazz Age nor present-day Washington. The costumes were similarly ill-suited—both to the characters and the performer’s bodies. The aesthetic was unattractive to the degree that I started wondering if this was intentional, if I was missing something—especially when I watched the ensemble don peacoats and leather jackets for a rendition of “It’s Too Darn Hot.”
The music—a selection of canonized Porter gems that might have been the life raft of the show—was treated neither as jazz nor as classical art song. As the accompanists barreled through the score with strict fidelity to tempo and to the overly-familiar arrangements, the vocals fell into an uncertain, shallow vibrato, seeming to have met half-way in a stylistic nether region on the journey from Gilbert & Sullivan to Ella Fitzgerald.
Sarah Anne Sillers provided some pleasant exceptions as the tech-savvy millennial Sam, savoring “Find Me a Primitive Man” in a sultry alto and swinging through her duets “Let’s Misbehave,” and “But In the Morning, No.” Jase Parker brought a slippery charm to “It’s Too Darn Hot” making the illogical costumes a particularly unfortunate distraction.
On the other side of the stylistic spectrum, our leading man, Joseph Haughton, accompanied himself on accordion and let his opera chops rip on “C’est Magnifique,” turning the kitschy joke song into a two-minute tour de force. Kenneth Derby and Brian Shaw were musically shaky but charming in an ambiguously innocent update of “You’re the Top”—whose topical lyrics were a high point of the show’s writing.
Still, there were 36 songs in total, and the aforementioned triumphs were more exception than rule. The performers proved themselves to be capable, but the musical numbers were generally lacking in stylistic intention and polish. When the ensemble sang at the same time, there were more than a few moments where “harmony” would have been a rather generous term.
THE COLE PORTER PROJECT
Closes March 9, 2014
1835 14th St. NW
Washington, DC 20009
Fridays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Is such severe criticism merited? Could we not applaud the good intentions of this sincere Cole Porter tribute and let the details slide? I could have saved myself some heartburn by answering “Yes”—I am aware that these performers have mothers. But if D.C. wants to compete as a leading city for American theater, theater-goers and critics alike need to buck the culture of malleable standards, evaluating each production at its own “level.” And even if I was willing to play that game, I would have to point out that In Series isn’t a “nobody”! They received excellent notices last month for their fifth collaboration with the Washington Ballet, and their ticket price isn’t exactly small change.
With The Cole Porter Project: It’s All Right with Me, the company took on more than they promised, and much more than they delivered. “Nine singers and 36 songs”? The prospects were bright. An integrated musical with narrative, set, costumes, and movement? And still 36 numbers? Someone had to be aware that this strained feasibility. I applaud the In Series for challenging their capacity as a theater company, but in challenging my capacity for the unpolished and unintentional, they pushed a bit too far.
The Cole Porter Project: It’s All Right With Me . Conceived and Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola and Greg Stevens . Music Director: Paul Leavitt & Frank Conlon . Design Team: Klyph Stanford, Donna Breslin, Greg Stevens . Featuring: Joseph Haughton, Randa Rouweyha, Tammy Roberts, Sarah Anne Sillers and Samual Keeler, with Kenneth Derby, Jase Parker, Brian Shaw and Tia Wortham . Presented by the In Series . Reviewed by J. Robert Williams.