‘Tis the season, and programming holiday fare for adults can either overload us on Sugarplum gooiness or, ignoring the holiday, risk appearing downright Scrooge-like. But Carla Hubner and her company of musical “elves” have conjured up something that is just the ticket. The show is well-directed and funny, and it’s got both heart and some soulful moments. Best of all, it features the music of Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin.
I was particularly pleased to hear such a range of Arlen numbers. One has to ask why his is not a household name the way Irving Berlin is. We probably know the movies that the songs were in or the singers that made the tunes famous. But most of us don’t know who wrote songs like “Stormy Weather”, “Come Rain or Shine”, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. In the first half of the twentieth century, Harold Arlen helped create the American popular musical landscape.
Stanley Thurston serves as pianist and Musical Director for Arlen Blues & Berlin Ballads. He leads celebrated saxophonist Marshall Keyes and bassist Ephraim Wolfolk in tight ensemble playing. Keyes gives us some especially nice solo work, reminding us that these two tunesmiths helped set the jazz “standards” songbook.
A popular genre of musicals these days, such as Mama Mia and The Million Dollar Quartet, serves up vintage tunes or musical bios re-heated in a contemporary dish with a new premise. It may feel safe to producers, but a lot of the premises seem downright clunky. In Arlen Blues and Berlin Ballads, Bari Biern, a young writer of considerable talent, has found a fresh way of crafting a story that ably houses the wonderful songs of these two American masters. The script serves as a nice little framework that resonates with our own current economic and political situation. Many of the songs were penned in the thirties when people were also concerned about the economy or from the early forties when the country was entrenched in war.
The show is set in Freedom Plaza in downtown D.C. Six unlikely souls find themselves sitting next to each other on the cold marble benches. They’re all a little bit lonely – you can see them all initially shrinking a little closer inside their shells – and wouldn’t normally be seen talking to each other.
But one breaks the ice. They discover some commonalities. Two have just been fired. One’s just retired. All are betwixt and between. Someone rifles around in a garbage can and fishes out an abandoned slogan from one of the many protests that besiege the capital. The signs become the show’s markers, drawing on the protests against Wall Street, the military “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and other contemporary issues.
With the specter of homelessness in everyone’s minds, someone starts a tune. Saxophonist Keyes wails, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.” Soon, the music brings them all together. Singing and sharing tune after tune not only lifts their spirits but shows them that the memories and music that bring us together are more important than the seeming differences that keep us apart.
Directors Abel Lopez and Angelisa Gillyard have created a taughtly choreographed and confident ensemble, whose character relationships never seem forced. Part of the reason for the polished level is that producer Carla Hübner, while not boasting a permanent ensemble, has always been generous in the way she builds programming around returning singer-actors. Here, she has re-assembled a fine team. She and the directors aren’t afraid of mixing vocal training and styles in bringing these performers together.
Here, the cast coalesces beautifully. It is a delight to hear operatic baritone Lewis Freeman deliver Arlen and Berlin repertoire with such ease and confidence. Clearly, he’s from a generation where these songs are part of him. His are beautiful, achingly reminiscent renditions of “Last Night When We Were Young” and “ How Deep is the Ocean.”
Pam Ward, primarily a soul singer, and Tammy Roberts, a musical hoofer-songstress, share the stage in several numbers as they have done in previous In-Series shows. Ward’s voice opened up and got richer as the evening wore on. She found the heart and her own expressive stamp, especially in “Stormy Weather” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Tammy Roberts’ voice lacks the expressive power and the technique that the others in the ensemble are blessed with, but her character work blends well.
Jase Parker, on the other hand, makes each of his numbers indelible. The night I attended, his wildly gay flounces and hip bumps brought peels of appreciative laughter in his many asides and numbers like “Heat Wave.” In addition to having a very lithe dancer’s body, Parker has a singularly expressive voice, and, when he is encouraged to let go of the stereotyped caricature and dares to sing it straight,as in “Fancy Free”, he shows that he is a performer with remarkable range and depth.
Leslie Vincent, the youngest member of the ensemble, has a lovely, natural presence on stage, and a pleasing voice. She holds her own in all the ensemble numbers and isn’t afraid of selling a solo number in her direct rendition of “Get Thee Behind Me Satan.”
Two minor notes. (I’ll admit I’m meddling.) I’d love to have seen Marshall Keyes integrated even more as a character as well as a musician. Also, with this curious, strong line up of characters representing us today, I would have loved to see a vet who’s just returned home. I believe that such a character, perhaps an amputee to represent so many casualties of this war, might have given some of the patriotic numbers at the end, an even more aching profundity. The tone of this show is so surprisingly adult and bittersweet, the addition of such a character would have amplified the storyline.
Carla & Co bottle this Arlen Blues and Berlin Ballads, not just for this Christmas, but for several to come. Go on the road to military bases, vet hospitals, colleges and other communities all over the world. We need some reminding about what binds us in these tough times, and how we come through with help from the music, which is our common legacy. The show allows us to reflect on what sacrifices have been made and still are being made at home and abroad and at the same time reminds us of hope and the regeneration symbolized in this season.
Arlen Blues and Berlin Ballads runs thru Dec 11, 2011 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC.
Arlen Blues & Berlin Ballads
Music by Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin
Lyrics by lyricists including Irving Berlin, Ted Koehler, ‘Yip’ Harburg, and Johnny Mercer
Script by Bari Biern
Directed by Abel Lopez and Angelisa Gillyard
Musical Direction by Stanley Thurston
Produced by The In-Series
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes