Liked, But Didn't Swoon Over, 'I Love a Piano'

Show Is a Smoothie in More Ways Than One
By RICK MELLERUP | Sep 13, 2013

The Ocean Professional Theatre Co.'s production of "Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano" may be the best musical revue – and that's basically what it is instead of a biopic or book musical – that I've ever seen. Yet I'm not too enthusiastic about the show.

I don't know what the company is paying the six-person cast – Romain Rachline, Eric Greengold, Blake Spelllacy, Elise Hearden, Elizabeth Flanagan and Colleen Roberts – but it isn't enough. They sing their hearts out (the show, after all, contains more than 60 Berlin songs) and dance their feet off. Just the number of costume changes they must endure (a quick-change is an actor's nightmare) is enough to qualify each and every one of them for combat pay.

All of them sing and dance admirably.

Indeed, the entire production runs like a well-oiled machine, as do most of director/choreographer Paula Hammons Sloan's shows. Her trademark – besides devising wonderful dance numbers from the barest of opportunities – is smoothness in going from one scene to another, and once again her transitions seemed effortless, even though actors had to change costumes God knows how many times and, to boot, push around an ancient upright piano that serves as the slender thread connecting the show's 11 scenes, which trace Berlin's long and fabulously successful songwriting career from 1918 through the late 1950s.

All of the show's production values are, well, valuable. The lighting, designed by Cindy Shumsey, is important considering "I Love a Piano" has a minimal set. The sound, by Tony Tambasco, was Baby-Bear-just-right save one microphone squeal that Berlin probably was able to hear in his grave. And Keith Scheider's costumes (ah, yes, them again) traced the passage of the decades with remarkable if not perfect accuracy.

So, what's not to like? We've got more than 60 songs by perhaps the best songwriter in American history, admirable performances, steady direction and more-than-competent technical backup.

"More than  60 songs" says it all. I guess it is overkill. Not overkill in a sensational way, of which so many Broadway shows can be accused, not overkill in a didactic way, not overkill in a cutesy or patriotic way, which is typical of all too many WWII era revues, but rather an overkill of smooth.

The show has so many Berlin hits – ""Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Blue Skies," "Cheek to Cheek," "How Deep Is the Ocean," "White Christmas," "God Bless America," "We're a Couple of Swells," "This is the Army (Mr. Jones)," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Easter Parade," "Anything You Can Do" (a tour-de-force by the show's three ladies) and the title tune. It also has, though, a number of his less-remembered tunes. They are inevitably charming or interesting or serve, musically, as a sign-of-things-to-come. There are just too many of them!

When bands release "Top Hits" albums, they typically go with a dozen to 16 songs. The truly great bands (I'm talking the likes of the Beatles) go with maybe four albums, if I recall, because they made so much great music. Agreed, Irving Berlin had a remarkable and lengthy career (I mean, the man lived to 101!). Still, a little culling is necessary.

When I lived in New York City in the 1980s my girlfriend and I used to put ourselves to sleep after a night of restaurants/partying/theater/nightclubs to "The Sounds of Sinatra with Sid Mark." If Berlin wrote the backbone of American standards, Sinatra sang them. Same affect as "I Love a Piano" – smooth, easing, with plenty of "I-didn't-know-he-recorded/wrote-that" moments. Remember, though, we used to put ourselves to sleep with it.

In the end, therefore, "I Love a Piano" is a case of overkill. Perhaps if the show's conceivers (they didn't dare to use the term "book writers" because their "book" is just a collection of skits featuring Berlin's music), Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, had kept the show to a "Top Hits" level it might have been better. There's simply way too much Berlin for a two-hour show. Instead of a highlight package, they served up a summation of Berlin's career – and he wrote approximately 1,500 songs.

Yes, there can be too much of a good thing. Yet ...  well, so many good things.

The final performances of "Irving Berlin's I Live a Piano" will be at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14 and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15 at the Bengal Auditorium of Barnegat High School, located at 180 Bengal Blvd. in Barnegat Township. Tickets are $35 and may be purchased online at oceantheatre.org, by phone at 609-312-8306 or at the box office starting one hour before each performance.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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