Shakespeare once wrote “if music be the food of love, play on.” Another wordsmith, who doubled as a tunesmith, boiled that sentiment down to the even more succinctly stated “Say it with music.” And did he ever!
The writer of memorable music and lyrics whose career spanned the 20th century was Irving Berlin. Berlin is credited with a remarkable 1,500 songs. Not bad for a man who could neither read nor write music! But what a legacy of tunes he left behind, from popular songs, Broadway and Hollywood staples, and many, many more.
It is the life of the poor Russian immigrant Israel Baline, the man who made America sing as Irving Berlin, and his prolific catalog of songs that The In Series selected for their cabaret-style revue, now warming hearts and filling the Source theatre with exquisite music and delicious lyrical gems.
Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody is billed as “a tribute in song” and it succeeds on all counts. Lovingly accompanied on the piano by music director and arranger Reenie Codelka, the cast of six expert singers bring to life a Whitman’s Sampler of Berlin’s most memorable and recognizable tunes as well as some of the hidden gems.
Adding a personal touch to this revue, the show is framed by Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellin (Berlin) Barrett’s visit to her father’s office to clean out personal effects. Barrett – portrayed with a gentle touch by Elizabeth Mondragon – says goodbye to her dad while looking through memorabilia. Turning on a radio, she is also transported in song via a Berlin retrospective program. The rest of the cast – sometimes joined by Mondragon – serve as the radio performers. There is written continuity provided by Bari Biern which effectively sets up the songs and carries the audience through the chronology of the songwriter’s life.
Pound for pound, this is the little revue that could – delivering nearly 40 Berlin musical numbers in about two hours. Director Abel Lopez has chosen to vary the length of many of the songs – perhaps a verse and chorus of some, while others are given a more complete rendering by the talented cast – in order to include more of Berlin’s work. If you can name it, the song is probably here. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Play A Simple Melody,” “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” “Blue Skies,” and the very timely “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” – and those are just highlights from the first act. The Broadway shows such as Ziegfeld Follies, Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam are represented, as well as Berlin’s film scores for Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, and White Christmas. Needless to say, I had to resist the urge to sing-along numerous times.
While the songs we know from stars and recording artists like Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, Fred Astaire, Mel Torme, and Ella Fitzgerald are all easy on the ear, the revue also features rarer material, such as some of Berlin’s earliest work – novelty songs like “Marie from Sunny Italy – and even social commentary. From As Thousands Cheer, the “living newspaper” revue from the 1930s, comes a powerful song introduced by Ethel Waters, “Supper Time.” As a wife prepares for her husband’s return, the reality that he is a victim of lynching creeps in. During “A Simple Melody,” cast member Krislynn Perry pours her heart and soul into the song and delivers a hair-raising version of the song.
Perry’s fellow cast members likewise have moments to shine as both individuals and as a winning ensemble. Mondragon lends her warm mezzo-soprano voice to songs such as the poignant “What’ll I Do?” and the peppy “Hostess With the Mostes’.” Perry is joined by Jarrod Lee for the ultimate male-female musical duel, “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun. Lee also wraps his rich voice around the standard “How Deep is the Ocean.”
Garrett Matthews and C.J. David’s big voices blend seamlessly for the showstopping “Heat Wave.” Baritone Matthews makes the ballad “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” his own, while David uses his lyrical, lilting tenor voice to such songs as “A Pretty Girl.” Rounding out the cast with a shining soprano voice, as well as a sparkle in her eye, Jaely Chamberlain charms and shines when she delivers “You’d Be Surprised” and “Say It Isn’t So.” Chamberlain and David also get to evoke memories of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during their delightful duet, “Cheek to Cheek.”
All of Berlin’s songs are not only handled masterfully by the cast, Reenie Codelka piano-playing deserves a standing ovation. From her brief introduction using familiar tunes, Codelka easily moves from charm song, to ballad, from ragtime to waltz, providing the performers with phenomenal support.
Want to go?
Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody
closes January 28, 2017
Details and tickets
Director Abel Lopez keeps the pace brisk throughout the evening, assisted by the fleet-footed choreography by Tammy Roberts. Berlin’s cozy office and the Art Deco-styled performance stage are combined into an intimate, jewel box of a set, designed by Jonathan D. Robertson, enhanced by Alex Keen’s lighting design. Robert Croghan’s simple, elegant dresses for the ladies and classic formal wear for the men bring to mind classy supper clubs and black and white musicals where Berlin’s songs would be de rigeur.
How could you go wrong with an evening of 38 Irving Berlin songs, sung with panache, presented in an intimate setting where the infectious melodies and open-hearted lyrics are given full effect? Pop over to 14th Street and spend a couple of hours with The In Series and let Irving Berlin say it with music all over again.
Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody . Directed by Abel Lopez . Featuring: Jaely Chamberlain, CJ David, Jarrod Lee, Garrett Matthews, Elizabeth Mondragon, Krislynn Perry . Music Director: Reenie Codelka . Choreographer: Tammy Roberts . Writer: Bari Biern . Set Design: Jonathan D. Robertson . Costume Design: Robert Croghan . Lighting Design: Alex Keen . Stage Manager: Cindy King . Produced by The In Series . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.