God Bless Irving Berlin’s America

I applaud The Wick Theatre for continuing to tap into many of our happiest memories at a time when we need them more than ever. Just entering their classy, luxurious venue and perhaps, like I did, indulging in rich chocolate gelato and coffee under crystal chandeliers in the lobby before the show, hearkens back to more relaxed and hopeful times.

And what could be more all-American hopeful than opening their tenth season with what director/choreographer DJ Salisbury calls a “’revusical’ that celebrates the timeless music of one of America’s greatest songwriters, Irving Berlin.” 

In 1893, at age five, Berlin and his large Jewish family landed in Ellis Island from Imperial Russia to escape brutal pogroms and poverty. Irving picked up some music ability from his father who’d made his living as a cantor back home. Sadly, the father died when Irving was only 13 and his son went out to work at whatever was available to help support his family. 

At 18, Berlin was hired as a singing waiter in Chinatown; he’d also taught himself to play piano. He went on to create an impressive career in music and lived a very long life (till 101!), writing over 1,000 songs, including the scores for 13 Broadway musicals and songs for 12 classic Hollywood films, penning most well-known songs of the twentieth century. To this day, no other lyricist and composer comes close to his output and popularity. His work continues to be celebrated for its aura of hope while his life story personifies the fulfillment of the American dream.

So it is with the utmost respect and sheer awe that I can report that a musical review encompassing over 60 of Berlin’s iconic songs and spanning four decades of American history – conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley – actually works beautifully! I can’t even imagine how many hours these two playwrights spent choosing among so many popular numbers, then making sure their selections flowed smoothly from one scene to the next. I especially appreciate their sense of pacing – like when a tragic tribute to a fallen soldier is followed by more lighthearted and even comedic routines. And full-company dance numbers are interspersed with impressive solos and duets. 

Flappers and their gents dancing it up in a Jazz Age speakeasy. From left: Ryan Matthew
Petty, Aaron Bower, Alex Jorth, Christina Carlucci, James Patterson, and Tari Kelly.
Photo by Amy Pasquantonio.

Perhaps the musical’s creators’ easiest job was choosing their title, I LOVE A PIANO, which also serves as the Prologue’s opening number and Act II’s Finale. Because it’s the song (copyrighted in 1920) that Irving Berlin, himself, considered one of his best. They were also able to use the history and travels of one, early 1900s ornate, wooden upright piano with a perennially out-of-tune key as the lynch-pin to many of their ensuing stories, all told in song, by the musical’s six characters. 

These triple-threat singers/dancers/actors are amazing, as well, given the extent of their roles. For it’s up to them to bring all the different eras in American history – from 1910 to the late 1950s – to life by portraying alternately touching, hilarious, exhilarating and patriotic scenes while singing and dancing their hearts out to Irving Berlin hits. With lightning-fast costume changes in between. 

When it comes to costumes, no theater can compete with executive managing producer Marilynn Wick’s Costume Museum collection. I was dazzled by the ladies of the Roaring Twenties and adored the comical hobo couple … but the entrance of “Easter Parade” strollers drew spontaneous applause from the audience. So in addition to incredible vocal, music, dance and acting talent, we have costumes and background visuals to keep us enthralled throughout this fast-moving and hyper-entertaining two-hour-plus (add 15-minutes for intermission) show. 

Time to give some well-deserved credit. First off, to the three women and three men (comprising local favorites and highly talented imports) who were cleverly coupled by height, when called for. Starting with the shortest (and playing the youngest) are Aaron Bower and Ryan Matthew Petty. Next up are Tari Kelly and James Patterson. And the tallest couple: Christina Carlucci and Alex Jorth. Though they are shuffled around for duets and often featured in solos with varying backups. But they are ALL terrific! Though Tari Kelly might win the contest for holding the longest note and James Patterson for extraordinary tap dance moves.

Scenic design by Michael Anania, lighting design by Katie Whittmore and sound design by Jesse Worley, coupled with ever-changing backgrounds seen through an immense “paneled window” (thanks to projection design by Kacey Koploff), added just the right touch of veracity to the changing decades. As mentioned earlier, the impressively varied selections of period dress by costume designer Ellis Tillman was spot-on perfect and far superior to anything I could imagine, and if production stage manager Jeffry George and assistant stage manager Matthew Rohan also had anything to do with the lightning fast dress transitions, you rock! 

Last, but hardly least, what makes this the perfect Irving Berlin tribute is hiring a live, professional band to impeccably play all your favorite tunes. The seven-piece mini-orchestra – which sat unseen onstage behind the back projections – was conducted by celebrated local musical director, Michael Ursua, who also played piano. It was so cool to see him and the band wave to us once the back “curtain” disappeared as the actors took their final bows, and then have these wonderful musicians included in our standing ovation.

But I’m not done yet. Let’s review some highlights. Starting with Scene 1 in Alexander’s Music Shoppe, 1910, in Tin Pan Alley where proprietor Alex (James Patterson) seeks singers, accompanied by his newly acquired piano, to entice customers to buy his sheet music. Eileen McGuire (Christina Carlucci) insists she’s the one to earn $1 a day for her singing and bursts out into “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” backed by Alex and Jim (Ryan Matthew Petty). But two more women enter to vie, aggressively, for the job, including Ginger (Aaron Bower) and Sadie (Tari Kelly) who will join Eileen in “Snooky Ookums.” But first the men, joined by George (Alex Jorth) pay tribute to the lovely ladies with “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.”

And so we have an opening era set up, intro to all the actors, humorous interactions, and an easy way to naturally feature several great songs, culminating in Ginger-fronted “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” that flows into Scene 2. A Parlor 1918. Followed by a 1920’s speakeasy with the entire company singing “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil.” 

We hit the Great Depression with a Lower East Side 1930s backdrop and newspaper clips of the stock market crash. Set atop our piano is a handmade “Piano for Sale” sign and no buyers for anything (well, maybe an apple) around. But then the piano is sold for $10 instead of the $5 asking price thanks to apple-seller Ginger’s intervention. A beautiful rendition of “Blue Skies” by Jim and Eileen is later reprised by the entire company, with falling snowflakes projected upon the wintry scene as everyone sings, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”

We move on to a mid-‘30s movie theater where they are presenting “For the Love of a Piano: the Songs of Irving Berlin.” Our cast appears as seated audience members with dancing feet, singing “Cheek to Cheek”, “Let’s Face the Music” (headed by Alex) and “The Best Things Happen When You Dance.”

Young army recruit Jim treats us to a rousing rendition of “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” as Uncle Sam posters form a backdrop to America’s entry into World War II. Scene 7 culminates in perennial favorites: “White Christmas,” by Jim and cast, followed by a heartfelt “God Bless America” by Sadie and company.

The shorter Act II enters with the post-war years and bluster of Ginger’s “What Are We Gonna Do with All the Jeeps?” and Alex in “What Can You Do with a General?” They keep up the snarky, light mood in “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army” (featuring Jim, George, Eileen and Ginger). But it all comes crashing down in the agony of an empty space at the table in “Suppertime.” I’m sure there was nary a dry eye during Ginger’s powerful lament for the husband and father who had not come home from the war.

Back home safe from the war, a joyous reunion. Photo by Amy Pasquantonio.

We’re revived to good humor with Scene 2. A Junkyard in the 1950s, and Jim and Eileen’s clownish “We’re a Couple of Swells” is soon joined by “Easter Parade” fancy dress on the rest of the cast. A late 1950’s Midwest summer stock theater holds a casting call for Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” and so gifts us with marvelous renditions of all-time favorites such as George in “The Girl That I Marry,” Sadie in “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (later reprised by the entire company), and Eileen and George in a tender, “They Say It’s Wonderful.”

But perhaps my favorite is a fresh twist on “Anything You Can Do” that begins with George but is soon followed by not one woman (as in the original) but three in a hilarious, high-voltage, song contest among the play’s three powerful female leads – Aaron Bower, Christina Carlucci and Tari Kelly (aka Ginger, Eileen and Sadie). A vocal highlight worth the price of admission on its own.

But you’ve got over 60 songs to enjoy in I LOVE A PIANO and, trust me, it will be hard to choose a favorite – they are all that good and matched by engrossing scenes from our collective past. Don’t miss your chance to revisit the beautiful music and lyrics of Irving Berlin as conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, directed and choreographed by DJ Salisbury, and playing now through November 12 at The Wick Theatre & Museum Club, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Tickets at www.thewick.org or by calling the box office at 561-995-2333.

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