‘The Cole Porter Project: It’s All Right With Me’
Through March 9
1835 14th St. N.W.
When the In Series first asked director Steven Scott Mazzola to create a show about Cole Porter for its 2014 season, he was certain what he didn’t want: four singers seated on stools singing the legendary Broadway composer’s best known works, setting up each song with a bit of surfacey chitchat. And though unsure of exactly what direction to take, he was determined to celebrate the staggering breadth of Porter’s music and explore his many facets without getting bogged down in too much biography.
Mazzola tapped Greg Stevens as co-writer/director. The pair (both gay) had met working on Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” (Mazzola directed, Stevens designed) for the In Series last season, and hit it off. After setting to work on six months of rewrites and workshops, the pair’s efforts resulted in “The Cole Porter Project: It’s All Right With Me,” a Washington-set tale about a delegation from Peru, Ind., (Porter’s hometown) who lobby Congress to honor their musical native son with his own national holiday.
While “The Porter Project” is mostly an entertaining romp, it also comments on Porter’s complexity, Stevens says. Invariably, Porter whose songbook includes sophisticated favorites like ”Night and Day,” ”What Is This Thing Called Love?” and ”I Get a Kick Out of You,” is pegged as urbanity incarnate, but there’s more to him than that. He was a classically trained musician who wrote popular music crammed with topical references. He loved both lowbrow humor and sleek sophistication, and his songs overflow with witty innuendo and double meaning. Porter, who died in 1964 at 73, and his older wife Linda, were a well-loved couple on the café society scene, yet he was gay and had romantic relationships with other men (an open secret among their set). It’s all there.
“I think D.C. is the perfect setting,” Mazzola says. “Like Porter, the city demonstrates a duality, particularly with politicians and government. Here it’s not unusual for the mirror to have faces.”
In preparing the project, Mazzola and Stevens combed through 1,000 songs before narrowing it down to three dozen ranging from familiar hits like “It Was Just One of Those Things,” “Love For Sale” and “Miss Otis Regrets” to the lesser known tunes “In the Morning, No” and “Experiment.”
“We’d identified some favorites that we wanted to use,” says Stevens, who first encountered Porter’s music in high school when he heard a disco version of “Begin the Beguine” by Tuxedo Junction. “But part of the process included thinking about how Cole Porter was among the very first musical theater composers whose scores propelled the story along. That was revolutionary in the 1930s. We wanted to do the same, so we ended up repurposing songs from a dozen musicals from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, all very different stylistically, to tell our story. And like Porter who wrote songs for performers like Ethel Merman (his favorite) and friend Fred Astaire, we wanted to select songs that fit our singers and characters.”
The nine-person cast features In Series vets Randa Rouweyha, Joe Haughton and Tammy Roberts. “The parts,” explains Mazzola, “are ‘gender open.’ The five principles have purposely been named Nick, Sam, Chris, Pat and Courtney and can be played by anyone.”
A long-time Washington company, the In Series works with local artists to create innovative theatrical programming around a musical core of opera, cabaret, poetry and song. Its productions strive to embrace fresh approaches to the classics, blend the performing arts in unconventional ways, and include Latino programs each season. “The Cole Porter Project” falls most closely to the cabaret category.
Primarily a set designer, Stevens (who heads the professional development program at the American Alliance of Museums by day) considers “The Cole Porter Project” his first formal effort in directing. “I’m looking to Steven as much as a mentor as a colleague. He knows more about the craft of directing whereas I’m going on instinct a lot of the time.”
A longtime director, Mazzola first came to Washington to assist Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Today, in addition to directing, he’s a grants manager at the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.) Yet, despite his ample staging experience, this is his first time co-directing. “It takes lot of negotiation. There are moments of frustration, but they don’t last. It’s interesting and you learn a lot watching how your co-director works.”
They like what they’ve come up with. But ultimately, Mazzola and Stevens agree: In the end, people will come to hear the music. It’s Cole Porter’s crowd-pleasing, enduring songs that are the draw, just as they have been for decades.