Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano

iloveapiano1Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Conceived by Ray Roderick & Michael Berkeley
Direction & Choreography by Ray Roderick
Musical Supervision by Stephen Purdy
Presented by Arena Stage in association with Maximum Entertainment, Off Broadway Booking, & Mazel Musicals
Reviewed by Steven McKnight

Arena Stage has such a distinguished history of outstanding theatre that one normally trusts any of its productions will meet a certain standard of excellence. After Arena’s true artistic triumph with Next to Normal, it is disappointing that the Arena brand has been loaned to a lackluster work like Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano.

In order to weave together a number of Irving Berlin songs, the production follows an old upright piano with a bad key from the early 20th century through the 1950’s.  The six singing and dancing performers (Ryan Lammer, Emily Mattheson, Alix Paige, Ashley Peacock, Michael Turay, and Jason Weitkamp) change costumes periodically to evoke memorable historical periods such as Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, and the post-war era.

It’s hard to imagine how a musical revue featuring one of America’s most renowned composers can go wrong, but this production finds a way.  First, the show skips uneventfully through 64 numbers which are mostly rendered in a bland and inoffensive manner, supplemented by some cutesy comic business.  There’s not a single show-stopping moment.  Perhaps the audience would be better served if the show’s creators had focused more attention on fewer songs so we could revel fully in the beauty of Berlin’s compositions.

The show depends substantially on the talent of the cast, but to be charitable, this ensemble is mediocre in vocal, acting, and dance skills.  I would be surprised if any of them would be cast if they auditioned for a true Arena Stage musical production.  Perhaps the only performer with real promise is Ryan Lammer (Jim), a young man who strives mightily to entertain the audience in Act I even at the expense of a little shameless mugging.  Unfortunately, Mr. Lammer largely disappears for much of the second act.

The music does provide some pleasant entertainment.  Michael Berkeley’s musical arrangements work well.  The ensemble sounds better as a group on numbers such as “Blue Skies” and “Always” than do any of them performing individually.  Under the guidance of Stephen Purdy, the six-piece band provides some lively and diverse sounds.

The dance numbers are less successful.  Other than a few acrobatic moments, the choreography was relatively simple and posed few demands on the cast.  Perhaps it is telling that the dancing highlight of the evening involved the six cast members kicking and swaying while seated together in a movie theatre.  That sequence had a certain charm, but the rest were largely forgettable.

The overall impact of the evening was lukewarm at best.  Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano seems designed to be a feel good nostalgia piece suitable for a cruise ship or an amusement park.  The show tries to tell you everything will be fine if you keep smiling, singing, and dancing.  Unfortunately, this production is not necessarily “a fine way to treat a Steinway” (to quote the title number).  In a town with abundant theatrical and musical offerings, it would be hard to feel good if you paid full ticket price for this uninspiring revue.

Running Time: 2:05 (one intermission)

Where: Arena Stage at Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U Street NW, Washington, DC.

When: Through February 15.  Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 PM, Thursday, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, and matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM (except only one show on final Sunday 2/15 at 6:00 PM).

Tickets: $25 – $74.  Call the box office at (202) 488-3300 buy

Steven McKnight About Steven McKnight

Steven McKnight is a recovering lawyer who now works in a lobbying firm and enjoys the drama of political theatre on both sides of the aisle. He admires authors, actors, athletes, teachers, and chefs, and has dabbled in all of those roles with mixed (and occasionally hilarious) results.


  1. All I wanted to do was slap the amusement park level smiles off the cast and go out and kill some puppies. Clearly the worst interpretations of these great songs I could imagine. Months later and still the awefulness won’t leave my memory.

  2. Carolyne Swayze says:

    Is there a video of this production?

  3. I have to say that I, too, disagree with the reviewer’s comments. My parents and I thought the performers were top-notch and I, personally, thought the dancing was on target. Regarding the need for brain power, I feel that while people can be expected to know America’s history of the last century, they cannot be expected to know musical theatre or Irving Berlin history.

    Again, I really enjoyed this tuneful Berlin show. However, I think the creators boxed themselves in with the American history angle and slim plot, leaving out Mr. Berlin himself. They could very well have had him as one of the song pluggers and singing one or two tunes as a composer working on a new tune in later years; I found it ironic that Mr. Berlin’s name is never mentioned.

    I also think if one took out several unnecessary repetitions of songs, a few extra could have been added–so more, not less, songs could have been supplied. It’s strange that World War I is glossed over in order to focus on World War II, for which Berlin used many of the same songs; this transition could have been handled better. A historical note: God Bless American was first sung by Kate Smith for Armistice Day, 1938, with royalties to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America—a note lost in this production.

    I agree that the “Anything You Can Do” was the showstopper, though I also enjoyed “A Couple of Swells.” However, by stopping at Annie Get Your Gun, many other great Berlin tunes were left out. “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam,” Shaking the Blues Away,” “Better Luck Next Time,” Other songs old and new could easily have been showcased with a fast forward to a mid-60s jazz club (how unfortunate that “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” is not given its seminal influence on jazz), where some Berlin songs could have been sung in a jazzier style.

    Also, both “Alexander’s” and “Supper Time” should have been sung by an African American (Bessie Smith sang the former, Ethel Waters, the later). In being a white bread and “feel-good” show, I was surprised that Water’s song about a wife morning her husband who has been lynched was completely erased. If Berlin and his producer had not stuck by their guns this song would not have remained in the 1933 revue for which it was written. It seems a little ironic that there are no black actors in a show who’s theatre is in a mixed neighborhood, let alone next door to Ben’s Chili Bowl!

    In fact, the “brains” could easily have led to a black actress being the occasional or off-stage narrator and performer of those two songs. I think this could have been the framework of the show, which could also have given it the “teeth,” breadth and history it sorely needed.

    Overall, an enjoyable and much needed tribute to Irving Berlin.

  4. Composeyourself says:

    Ok, I agree that what Bob had to say about the performers was vicious. It’s also dangerous to just lump every single performer into one ‘they all suck’ category–because who knows, maybe some of the performers actually have talent, but just aren’t able to display it within this show’s framework. Bob is displaying shame-ridden, careless criticism. To pour hate on the production and direction is one thing–on people?, that’s another. I’ve been in town long enough to know that Mr. Mondello can display a mean, nasty streak toward ensembles or actors in lesser roles, if he is not satisfied with the overall production. I would hope he would be more careful in the future to put blame a little higher than where he tends to aim it.

    Now that I’ve defended the lumping and scathing of these performers…I will admit that you couldn’t pay me to see this tripe.

  5. well, I’d argue that what Bob Mondello is suggesting is that the actors should not have been directed to portray their roles in that matter, not blaming them. Also, portrayals and direction can often bleed into one another in a collaborative art/profession such as theatre. No reviewer or audience member can discern what is one’s contribution and what is another’s, so reviews should be read as such–critiques of the production as a whole, with specific examples of how that opinion was developed.

  6. JOHN L

  7. did i say that, nope…. didnt think so. michael go back to college and pretend you know everything.

  8. So you’re saying the actors are never to blame? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. If the actors suck, then they suck. It’s not the directors fault that they’re amateurs.

  9. ok WELL I agree with peter marks, the show’s technical aspects are very low and amateurish! however reading bob’s review he just seems bitter… to blame actors for portraying roles is also harsh because after all a director’s job is to make sure his or her actors are performing and portraying the roles the way he or she wants to. to blame THEM is harsh and wrong. He doesn’t have anything nice to say whatsoever , isn’t the point of critiquing to offer constructive criticism…? The actors do their JOB because this is a business if you dont like it you have to blame direction not what theyre doing on stage…

  10. Thanks to Bob Mondello and Peter Marks for telling it like it is:
    First Bob:”Let’s be charitable and assume that no one associated with Arena Stage had actually seen Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano when the company booked Ray Roderick’s barely cruiseship-worthy touring revue into the Lincoln Theatre. Prior to its opening, though, Arena staff must have caught at least a tech rehearsal, at which point they had an obligation to their audience to step in. Roderick’s busily insipid staging probably can’t be entirely ignored contractually, but the performers—all young, energetic, and hapless—might still have been urged not to smile quite so relentlessly when singing sad songs, to sell happy ones a bit less fiercely, and to trust the material just a little…The show’s wobbly central conceit, involving the shifting fortunes of a battered upright with a broken key, seems chiefly designed to evoke Ain’t Misbehavin’ as the lights come up, but nothing thereafter suggests the director or his cast have ever ventured into a theater outside a theme park. The singing is mostly charmless, the dancing more vigorous than accomplished, the production bargain-basement, and the evening utterly tone-deaf when it comes to nuance and context…”

    And Peter Marks
    “This touring jukebox musical, directed and choreographed by Ray Roderick, looks as if it could stand a stimulus package of its own. The evening has the flimsy feel of budget-consciousness, as if the whole kit and caboodle had been loaded into the theater from the back of a minivan. The costumes evoke memories of thrift-shop scavenging, and the chintzy set pieces — an enlarged black-and-white photo of Berlin; an old upright piano that cast members repeatedly have to shove on and off the stage — are the kind of furnishings better suited to a middle-school multipurpose room than the stage of a major regional theater..”:

  11. theatre buff says:

    “by the end you will find yourself Singing along and tapping your feet”

    Perhaps we have two kinds of patrons here – those who go to see and hear the performances as presented and those who like to sing along, recite soliloquies, hum arias, etc.

  12. I will not be seeing “Irving Berlin’s I Love A Piano” based on this website’s review and two other web reviews. I will be returning to this web discussion often to discover the next twist or turn in its living storyline.

    It was a privilege to see “Next To Normal” at Arena. Amazing Theater! My brain was next to bursting from the power exploding off that stage. I saw “Next To Normal” twice.

  13. Just out of curiosity, what is it about this show that has so many people writing about it? I read this site all the time and have never seen this sort of back and forth. I was checking just now and there’s virtually no other discussion of other reviews. Guess I’m going to have to go see this one for myself to see what all the fuss is about. Whodathunkit.

  14. I agree with the person who particularly liked the number “Anything You Can Do, I Can do Better.” When I saw the original with Ethel Merman, it was a competition with the male lead. This production had an interesting switch with the three ladies competing for a part in a summer stock show.

    However, the original was not miked. Singers then knew how to project their voices to the balconies. In this production, the miking mercifully was not too loud, but the sound all seemed at the same level regardless of the nature of the song – whether it was a love song or a march. There was a relentlessness in squeezing 62 songs into two hours.

    As someone suggested, it might have been better as entertainment on a cruise ship, or in a nightclub.

  15. Joel Markowitz says:

    You have gone a little too far “I Love Musicals.” For 8 years we heard from the Bush White House that if you opposed the war in Iraq you were not true patriots or Americans. Your line. “I do believe if you are a true American and a patriot you would love this show” is offensive and I don’t appreciate it. And just because you love Irving Berlin songs, like I do, it doesn’t automatically excuse a subpar production. I know many theatres that have booked shows into their theatres and regretted it. As a critic, you should know better that there are readers who will disagree with your reviews. I hope your readers, when they do disagree with you, will show you more respect than what you showed to Mr. McKnight. It’s the tone that counts. You should know better.

  16. This is a show where you have to use “brain power”??? Give me a break.

  17. I love musicals says:

    I can not disagree more with what Steven has to say about this show. I have seen the show previously and I loved it. I would like to find out from Steven what kind of Theatre training he has to write critique about shows. Or is it just personal preference that makes you decide that a show is good or not. My mom always used to say if you don’t have anything constructive to say keep your mouth shut.

    I have a degree in Musical theatre and write reviews on shows as well. I certainly don’t think every show I see is great but I write something that these people can use to improve their show. I don’t write stuff to cut them down. I saw the show on Sunday and this is not the first time that I have seen this show. And I must say I loved it, I must however agree with you Steven that I think there are too many songs in the show and that I wish the creators of the show chose fewer songs.

    I however do not agree with you that the actors are mediocre in any of their skills. And as for Auditioning for an Arena Stage Production and not getting in, As far as I know this show was booked by Arena Stages. And they obviously thought the show was great otherwise they wouldn’t have booked it.

    In fact I thought the actor you mention in your article was too animated and looked completely out of sync with the rest of the cast. This is an Ensemble show not a show where one person takes all the credit. There are certainly places where each cast member gets to shine and believe me they do.

    As for not having a show stopping number I thought that “Anything you can do I can do Better” was a great number and that the audience loved every second of it. And in this number if you couldn’t see the talent and well groomed skills of the Actors then you are obviously blind.

    I do believe if you are a true American and a patriot you would love this show. However it is a show where you have to use a bit of brain power. You will most certainly be entertained and by the end you will find yourself Singing along and tapping your feet.
    I loved the show and if you can then go and see it twice, because there are so many little things that Roderick put into this show that you won’t pick up if you loose concentration for one second.

  18. Steven’s review was right on…unfortunately for us as patrons at Lincoln. I have been a subscriber to Arena Stage over 10 years and am looking forward to Arena’s new home in SW in 2010, but the selection of shows by the Artistic Director has definitely been inconsistent the last couple of years. “I love a Piano” is an example of a production that may have worked in other cities, but there was more than a “missing key” in the DC version. The production was second rate and not up to the usual standards that subscribers expect. The quality of the actors as many of the other comments cited above was okay, but not a match to either the price of the tickets nor evidence of Arena’s mainstay in the DC theater circuit. Following up after its superb production of “Next to Normal” in Crystal City, this show fits the classification of abnormal. Unfortunately, for Arena, this is not what they need in building a subsriber base for their renovated theater. Instead of maintaining subscriber membership, what might happen is that patrons may only buy tickets on a single show basis. This is not the way to ensure a viable Arena Stage in the coming years. In retrospect, the show took a very solid idea, the muscial history of Irving Berlin, and embarrassed both the musician and Arena.

  19. Harrison T. says:

    As a subscriber to Arena for 14 years, I am appalled at what I saw on Saturday on the Lincoln Theatre Stage. What has this theatre come to to book an amateurish, poorly performed, cheap looking, boring production? My kid’s middle school has done more professional shows than what I saw. I’m shocked that a subscriber would say this was highly entertaining.It may have made you feel good Barbara when you left the theatre, but as a subscriber for over a decade who has always had pride in Arena Stage, I was embarrassed.

  20. Barbara T. says:

    I basically agree with Sally & Barbara — this was a highly entertaining show with wonderful performers. I felt good when I left the theater — and wasn’t that the point of this particular production? Broadway caliber? I’d say “yes,” in a good way — (Note to Barbara: Broadway is not immune to drek.)

    As to price — well, I’m an Arena subscriber. The ticket for my primo orchestra seat said $50 and considering the venue, live music, song & dance & the over-all feel-good, enjoyable experience of “I Love a Piano,” I’d have to say it was worth it.

    Jesse, Dahlink — the performers may have been young & green but they were NOT mediocre.

    Note to John L.: This was not the worst thing “seen on a DC stage in recent memory.” That prize goes to The Shakespeare’s Theater’s all-drag production of “Romeo & Juliet.” X-treme drek!

  21. Nathan, non-equity has nothing to do with the quality of a show. You simply saw a show with mediocre performers.

  22. This production was dreadful. Saw it Saturday with a few old college buddies. I usually think Arena is a safe bet, but this was easily the worst thing I’ve seen on a DC stage in recent memory. Absolute dreck!

  23. I completely agree with the reviewer. This dreadful show would be a welcome addition to the entertainment lineup of a mediocre cruise line. If only the Lincoln Theater could float…

  24. I saw it on opening and I think the reviewer hit it right on. What were they thinking bringing this show in? They take artistic risks but this show was just a booked in show of non-equity people and it showed. I know times are hard but Arena should have taken more producing control. I paid way too much to see this show. At one point in the first Act they say, “Can it get any worse?” and several people around me laughed out loud asking the same question about the show.

  25. I agree with Sally. I saw the show Saturday afternoon, and while it’s not Broadway caliber, it was very enjoyable. Of course I’m one of the people who took advantage of Arena’s marathon ticket offer several months ago – so I paid $25 + $5 = $30 total for an excellent orchestra seat. The show was sold out and most of the people around me seemed to enjoy it. I didn’t see a mass exodus of patrons at intermission. And, I really like the Lincoln Theatre. I actually have room for my long legs – when they rennovated the theater they didn’t jam the seats together. Some of the performers were better than others but as a group I thought they did a good job. I also thought the orchestra did a great job. I came out humming these old familiar songs.

  26. Sally: I love Irving Belin songs too, but for $79 ($76 + $3 service fee which I paid online), I deserved a more experienced cast with better voices and dancing skills. I agree with the reviewer that this deserved to be on a cruise ship. For the money I spent, I could have bought copies of the cast cds and DVDs of Call Me Madam, Holiday Inn, White Christmas, and Annie Get Your Gun. I didn’t pay to hear “young singer who just started out in their careers” for that kind of money. The production was amateurish and cheap looking and monotonous. Not up to Arena Stage standards.

  27. I sadly have to agree with the reviewer here. I love Irving Berlin’s songs and was very excited to see this show, but the presentation of the songs here both in terms of the book of the show and in the quality of the performers was lackluster. There were a few high points such as the Annie Get Your Gun songs sequence that I did enjoy, but considering the richness of the musical material here, the writers of this show and the performers should have and could have created a much more dynamic show, along the lines of Crazy for You. I agree with the reviewer that this show was not up the standard usually delivered by Arena Stage.

  28. I couldn’t disagree more with what this reviewer has to say. I saw the opening night of Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano, and I was taken away with the music, the talent, and the experience. This show is an example of musical theater escapism and it is exactly what the D.C theater scene needs right now. In light of the optimism and hope inspired by our new president, I’m surprised this reviewer has the audacity to put forth such a pessimistic and close-minded attitude. Clearly this young cast has just began their careers, and they too seem to be as inspired by Berlin as us older folks. It is a night of theater that should not be missed by anyone with heart and love for the nostalgia of yesterday. I really love this show.



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