I Love a Piano, music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, concept and book by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley. Directed and choreographed by Karla and Kelly L. Shook.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"They Say Itís Wonderful"
American history can be studied through the songs of a Russian immigrant named Israel Baline who changed his name and then changed musical theatre history by writing successful shows, that are more American than apple pie, from the period before World War I until just after the Kennedy Administration. "I Love a Piano," a frantic revuesical utilizing sixty-one songs by the more Americanized Irving Berlin (same guy), is now playing at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York and a cast of six stalwart performers are performing all of them while changing costumes and bringing us forward in time to the present. This feat is accomplished in just about two hours and twenty minutes and it leaves you breathless. Think what it must do to them!
Style changes, key changes, costumes, hair, hats and props, number by number tell us where we are and with whom. Directed by the Shook sisters, both of whom have toured in this show around the nation and across the Pacific, the show has a special dynamic that really does both amaze and amuse. Sometimes you sit in wonder at the lightning quick changes the actors make. Other times you sit and wonder when the show will get on to its next sequence as music plays interminably waiting for one person to appear. This is the onward versus the awkward. As put together there are really no alternatives, more a problem created by the creative team than by the directors.
Choreographically the show is fun, simple and reasonable for a small cast performing non-stop. Not dazzling with tap dancing, toe-tap, balletic fantasies or jazzy swing numbers, the steps here are part of the direction, part of the fabric, once again, of the complete interpretation.
Both Shook sisters are also in the production, part of the ensemble and given only a few solos of their own. In the second act Karla lets loose on "Suppertime" and proves herself to be not the equal of Barbra Streisand or Ethel Waters. She delivers a competent rendition although it is one devoid of genuine feeling and so it loses our empathy. Kelly impresses with "Say It Isnít So" which has both clarity and sincerity going for it in her rendition during a 1930s dance marathon and there is the case in point about history and this music. As presented we see and feel the frustration of the early mid Ď30s, the depression.
Andrea Dotto returns to this theater in the third female role and is charming, perky and perky and perky. She gets some delightful things to sing and she manages to be just about right time and again. . .and perky. Even in her darker moment, singing "Whatíll I do?" one of Berlinís most mysteriously melancholy numbers (written while he was courting the wealthy woman he would eventually marry), she manages to encourage the hearts of her listeners.
The three men in the show are just as interesting to watch. Mac-Haydn stalwart John Saunders delivers solidly on many of his songs and even uses his adult stamina to good comic effect in "What Can You Do With a General?", something I have not seen him do before.
Two newcomers to this company, Tim Quartier and Carl Hulden, fill out the entertainment with comedy, songs, and even some good dancing and comedy. Quartier is especially funny in the final sequence of the show, an audition for the lead role in Annie Get Your Gun. Quartier plays the actor who has the lead role of Frank Butler and he gives the man an ego that would make Oprah Winfrey seem down-to-earth. He is very funny and he sings with a lyrically charming voice that is often thin and partially wary. Hulden on the other hand is a funny actor, a naturally funny man who sings with beauty and strength. In a more ordinary world those characteristics would have been shared out differently, but here we are in the arena of up-and-coming stage performers and we have what we have. It will be interesting to see, over the season, how these men shape up and perform. Right now my money is on Hulden, but weíll have to wait and see.
As usual the costumes by Jimm Halliday rule the day. He defines character with clothing better than almost anyone working today. Andrew Gmoser does just the right things with his lighting design for the show. The music ensemble - there are three for this show as it absolutely needs a real piano - do justice to the music with the fine piano playing taking the lead and the synthesizer following up with various instrument sounds which lend an orchestral presence to much of the music. Whoever the pianist is - Joshua D. Smith or Matthew Rose - Bravo!
This revue will not change anything. You will fall in love with Irving Berlinís songs, just as you have done before. The difference here is you will only come away singing one of them and it is probably already your favorite. There is so much music in this show. And those in the know say itís wonderful.
I Love a Piano will be playing at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on route 203 just north of the town of Chatham, NY through June 5. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-9292.