I Love a Piano, Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin, Conceived and written by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley. Directed by Ray Roderick.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Pack Up Your Sins....and Let Yourself Go!"
When you’ve written more than three thousand songs, and you have talent, you are bound to come up with a hit or two...or three for that matter. Irving Berlin wrote more hits, upping that ratio a lot, than any other songwriter working in the American Theater. At the Colonial Theatre for only three performances during its lengthy National Tour, the revuesical "I Love a Piano" lets six people perform fifty-six of them at breakneck speed while telling the tale of an upright piano with a bum note that travels from the pre-world war one era into the summer stock age of the 1950s. Of those fifty-six songs squeezed into just under two hours of entertainment forty-one of them are unqualified mega-hits. Two of them are in the top five all-time high-paying royalty hits: "White Christmas" and "God Bless America."
Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley have glommed on to a time-honored stage tradition and forged a revue with a minor story line (we won’t call it a plot) in order to bring these songs to life. The years move ahead from scene to scene. The costumes change and the piano moves with the times. The six show-biz kids never age but are replicated from era to era by another six show-biz kids with the same names and faces, and hair. Their destiny, their work, and their loving are all linked to the life of this instrument with a sour tone in its top end. That’s the story. In a nutshell.
This is a revue, an overview of the talent of one man, Irving Berlin, a man Jerome Kern defined as "American Music." He was a Russian-Jewish immigrant kid who could only play the piano in the key of C, so when he got famous enough to have a piano made for him he had the builders craft one that could transpose that basic, un-augmented key of C into any other tone row he needed to create the songs that moved a nation to tears, laughter, patriotism and love.
The man’s songs have never been out of fashion. His films are still shown on television and in revival theaters; they are available on sell-out DVDs. People like Rod Stewart and Linda Ronstadt and Barbra Streisand and Harry Connick, Jr. sing and record them. They are not just the songs of an older generation; they are songs of, and for, now.
The sextet of singer/dancer/actors singing, dancing and acting this show are terrific, basically. Local darling (if you go the MacHaydn Theater at all) Karla Shook has a splendid time in this production with a few heartbreaking moment ("Suppertime" and "Russian Lullaby") and some overwhelming comic ones ("Anything You Can Do" and "Change Partners") as well. She is a wonderful singer, with panache, and she does comedy shtick better than most.
Johnnie Moore is Shook’s equal in every way. His voice is large and resonant and has a perfectly placed baritone center which he uses perfectly in songs like "Let’s Face the Music" and "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep." He has a face you’ll be certain you know, but the name won’t match your memory of him. His duet near the end of the second act with Shook is a high point of this show as his character faces a nervous breakdown brought on by her presence.
Sean Schwebke is lovely light tenor with an equally light comic flair. He is often paired with Darcie Bender, a soprano with a light top. Together they make a lot fun out of "We’re a Couple of Swells." Independently he wins top honors with "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," while she shines in several songs, including "Blue Skies" and "What’ll I Do?"
The third couple is the odd couple. Summer Broyhill is dynamite, complete with red hair. Mark Baratelli is a mime who sings and acts, but mimes best. He is a dancer who moves his voice around, sometimes in one range, sometimes in another. Often he is off-pitch. Equally often he seems to trip into a high falsetto note. Every once in a while he is very, very good with a song, such as "How Deep is the Ocean?" Broyhill, on the other hand, is just dynamite. She is perky ("Isn’t It a Lovely Day?") and funny ("What Are We Going to Do with All the Jeeps?") and even moving ("I Got Lost in His Arms").
In an absolutely stunning vocal trio, Moore, Broyhill and Baratelli take on the song "Lazy" and in close harmony nearly stop the show.
But the star of the show is none of the above. It is the mysterious piano which is played on stage by every member of the company. It is seemingly operational, but just upstage center where the band is located, there is conductor/pianist Alex LeFevre. It is his playing of his own instrument that is the highlight of the evening. Berlin is the star, but LeFevre is hitting those strings with those hammers, keeping the tempos bright and making the whole thing sound like it should.
Larry Gruber’s scenery is excellent, and if you like what Julianne Boyd does in her revues with three steps sweeping across the stage, you’ll love Gruber’s set. Ed McCarthy’s lighting is usually right on, but there are a few questionable moments, particularly one involving a red and white checkered tablecloth. Sam Fleming’s costumes improve our memories, or illusions, of each of the eras highlighted in this show.
Roderick’s direction is slick, cruise-ship like showmanship. It never fails to get the laughs when needed. It always provides a mood change when the song asks for one. There are some overly familiar jokes in the staging of some of the numbers, but that certain sense of the familiar is often a cozy corner for the audience and it all works out fine. He is lucky to have the company he’s keeping at work, for they do what he asks and needs and they make it all work.
There are only two more nights with this show before it moves out of Pittsfield and back onto the road. That’s too bad. Two more weeks would be great.
conductor/pianist Alex LeFevre
"I Love a Piano" plays at The Colonial on South Street in Pittsfield through October 17. Ticket prices range from $24 to $46. For tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go online at www.thecolonialtheatre.org