What does one expect when attending an event called The Cole Porter Project? Given the composer-fronted name and the producing company (the In Series, primarily known for their accessible opera work), I imagined a fairly simple review of some of Porter’s classic tunes, plus a few of the lesser-known gems. A handful of great performers would pull character and story from each of these densely packed pieces, offer some wry delivery and souring voice, and we call it a night in a cool 90 minutes.
Walking into U Street’s Source Theatre, I was prepared for such an event. A handsome, intimate little stage was set, a checked floor, a read curtain, ornate proscenium, and a stand you just know will hold some fun placards. Greg Stevens’scenic design perfectly fits the bill for such an evening. A piano and upright bass await on stage right, waiting to be brought to spritely life by music director Alex Tang and bassist Ephriam Wolfolk.
Things weren’t exactly what they seemed though, as The Cole Porter Project is actually much more of a book musical. Stevens, along with Steven Scott Mazzola, have woven together a self-aware little story about a pair of Porter lovers from Peru, Indiana (the composer’s hometown) who travel to big, scary Washington, DC, to pass a bill instituting a National Cole Porter Day.
This could be just the light little thru-line a tongue-in-cheek revue can use to bring in some character and offer some opportunity for good old fashion DC satire, but there’s a few challenges.
First of all, for a show that openly jokes about how paper-thin the premise is, a surprisingly large amount of time and focus goes towards that storyline and book scenes.
Secondly, the storyline actually undermines many of the songs and their underlying subtexts. “Love for Sale” is sold out for one joke. “Friendship” is played downright sincerely, losing the bite of the escalating, dark lyrics. “But in the Morning, No” is given the exact opposite meaning than the song is intended to have.
Third, the sheer volume of songs does Cole Porter no favors. One of Porter’s chief virtues was that as a lyricist, he knew no limits. Once he cracked a song’s rhyme scheme, he could (and did) write dozens of verses. One of the true pleasures of a Cole Porter tune is listening to the way that the man, casually flaunting his genius, could finagle more and more clever wordings into the same verse-chorus-chorus-chorus. With this dense a selection, the majority of the numbers in The Cole Porter Project rest after one, maybe two, verses, and it’s a real shame.
Where the show really works, though, is once the trappings of plot are dispensed with and we veer into more wacky, anecdotal situations, primarily in the second act. The more ridiculous Porter goes, the better it becomes. For example, by early in act two, a character has conjured up a vision of Ethel Merman (a wacky, wonderful Tammy Roberts), and you’d better believe that Ethel’s giant voice and flailing limbs send the show into space. What might surprise you is that it also anchors the tone in a much needed way.
For the wonkiness of the thru-line, though, there are plenty of highlights: Jase Parker’s “Miss Otis Regrets” arrives with crisp, fun delivery. Randa Rouweyha, as Hill politico Courtney, nails “Make it Another Old-Fashioned, Please”: she’s got a beautiful soprano voice and a lovely emotional connection, but most importantly she lands the hell out of the joke of the song, offering the Source audience the single biggest sincere laugh of the evening.
The Cole Porter Project
Closes September 21, 2014
1835 14th Street, NW Washington
2 hours, with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – $42
Elsewhere, Christopher Harris holds the evening together with a strong leading man presence and a shimmering voice, best showcased in “C’est Magnifique”(once again, the wackier the better for this show). Sarah Anne Sillers busts out memorable renditions of “Find Me a Primitive Man” and “The Physician”, while also bringing extra dimensions to the social media-obsessed Sam (though she’s done no favors by the writing of the character, which relentlessly, affectionlessly picks on millennials).
In fact, the entire cast brings strong energy and golden voices to the table, especially in the ensemble singing. The easy highlight of the show is listening to some stunning vocal arrangements of Porter classics, courtesy of Paul Leavitt, including an exciting Act One Finale* that mashes up four of Porter’s songs into a very cool overlapping cacophony.
*- Not actually the Act One finale. There is more book and a much smaller number that separate the wild applause from that showstopper and the intermission.
If you’re in the mood to hear some great Cole Porter tunes sung by some excellent singers, you’ll get that with The Cole Porter Project. You’ll get a whole bunch of other stuff that sometimes distracts, but it’s got the goods where it really counts. In the time, it manages to deliver as-advertised, this Project is a worthy one.
The Cole Porter Project . Music: Cole Porter . Book: Steven Scott Mazzola and Greg Stevens . Director: Greg Stevens . Music Director: Alex Tang . Featuring Randa Rouweyha, Joseph Haughton or Christopher Harris, Tammy Roberts, Sarah Anne Sillers, Samual Keeler, Kenneth Derby, Jase Parker, Brian Shaw, Tia Wortham or Christine Browne-Munz . Produced by In Series . Reviewed by John Dellaporta.
THE COLE PORTER PROJECT
John Dellaporta . DCTheatreScene If you’re in the mood to hear some great Cole Porter tunes sung by some excellent singers, you’ll get that.
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide a mixed bag. Porter’s songs are always good…
Ramona Harper . DCMetroTheaterArts a two-hour hoot of a blast of great Cole Porter music and lyrics