WASHINGTON, January 18, 2017 – Somewhat belatedly due to scheduling conflicts, we finally managed to attend a recent performance of the In Series’ terrific revue entitled “Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody.” Short take: It’s a winner. Good news: If you haven’t already seen it, you still have two more weekends to catch a performance at the Source.
In addition to its patented series of “pocket operas,” the In Series has a long tradition of putting together cabaret shows and revues featuring the music and the great composers whose memorably popular lyrics and tunes feature prominently in what’s frequently known as The American Song Book.
The immortal music of classical luminaries like Mozart and Beethoven is still being remembered and performed some 200 years (give or take) after it was composed. We suspect that the witty and irresistible tunes of America’s top popular music composers will prove just as durable in the years and decades ahead.
Of these brilliant tunesmiths, Irving Berlin remains a standout. Many of the roughly 1,500 songs composed by the remarkably long-lived composer (1888-1989), remain at the top or near the top of the charts even today in terms of recognizability, durability and near-universal appeal.
Fun fact: Famously, Berlin never mastered the actual theory and science of music making. He was not a stellar pianist and, in fact, could only compose or perform playing primarily on the black keys of the piano. As a result, essentially everything he wrote was initially composed in the key of F#, then set down and notated by a trained musician before being submitted for commercial publication. Berlin himself often used a specially modified piano with a transposing keyboard in order to play in different keys while still using only the black ones, as in the interesting 1950s TV video below:
Berlin began cranking out popular tunes as early as 1907 or thereabouts, often penning the lyrics as well. He kept those songs and occasional Broadway musical and movie scores coming until the time of his 1962 musical, “Mr. President.”
Trivia note: a pre-Broadway version of that show was staged at D.C.’s National Theatre, where President Kennedy and the First Lady attended one of the performances. Its Broadway run, alas, was not regarded as a great success.
The In Series’ take on the life and works of Berlin involves a light but relevant flashback plot by Bari Biern that cleverly highlights not only some of the composer’s greatest hits, but also rolls out lesser known numbers that have historical interest or shed light on the composer’s life and times.
The show begins with a brief, virtual overture consisting of snippets of Berlin tunes performed by the show’s music director and pianist Reenie Codelka. Cast member Elizabeth Mondragon then appears on stage portraying one of the late composer’s daughters.
In a room of her recently deceased father’s home, she begins to go through his effects. Each object, each photo conjures up memories of her father’s life and music, and, as she reminisces, the rest of the cast emerges on stage, dressed to the nines and ready to bring each song back to life.
The show’s two acts present Berlin’s music in roughly chronological order. After opening with Ms. Mondragon’s interpretation of Berlin’s wistfully evocative “What’ll I do,” (which the show links with the tragic death of his first wife), the show’s cast moves through the composer’s songbook and the events of his life, ranging from what appears to have been his first published song, “Marie from Sunny Italy” (1907) through still widely-recognized hits like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band, “I Love a Piano,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” “Blue Skies,” and the wickedly syncopated but irresistible “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”
Near the end of Act II, the cast also presents a medley of tunes from Berlin’s hit musical, “Annie Get Your Gun”—including “Anything You Can Do” and “They Say It’s Wonderful”—as well as from the film “Holiday Inn” (1942), which was later remade as the better-known “White Christmas” (1954). Both films feature Bing Crosby singing what became the title song of the second film, which has remained a Christmas classic ever since Crosby first recorded it in the 1940s.
Appropriately, the show concludes this Presidential Inauguration Month with a rendition of “God Bless America,” which, yes, was composed by Irving Berlin, a grateful, once-impoverished Russian Jewish immigrant who never ceased to be astonished at how his life turned out in the Land of the Free.
Over the last two or three years, the In Series’ various casts of singer-actors have improved noticeably in vocal quality and expressiveness, and the cast of this current show is no exception.
In addition to mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Mondragon, who also impressed in “Goyescas” earlier this season, the show’s sterling cast includes soprano Jaely Chamberlain, tenor Cornelius David (aka “C.J.”), bass-baritone Jarrod Lee, baritone Garrett Matthews and mezzo-soprano Krislynn T. Perry. Individually and in ensemble every one of them seemed to know instinctively how to express and sell each song, hitting the emotional highs and lows ranging from poignancy to good humor.
Perhaps the most impressive song of the show was Ms. Perry’s interpretation of “Supper Time,” a song that’s fairly unknown today from Berlin’s Broadway 1933 revue, “As Thousands Cheer,” a show made popular by the far better known “Easter Parade.”
Sung in the original production by Ethel Waters, “Supper Time” was her character’s gut-wrenching lament over her husband’s recent lynching. It was controversial for its time, as was the appearance of a black singer given equal billing in a “white” musical. But Berlin held out for its inclusion, and the show ran for 400 performances even in the midst of the Great Depression.
Ms. Perry’s rendition of this deeply saddening and almost atypical Berlin song plumbed the depths of tragedy and sorrow with a sincerity and authenticity that’s not often encountered on stage.
In summary, we found few problems in the midstream performance of this terrific show, which is running for nearly a month at the Source. A minor downside for us was the occasionally haphazard piano accompaniment of Reenie Codelka. On the other hand, this is a pretty industrial strength show for any pianist to perform, so perhaps we’re being a bit churlish.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)
“Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody” continues at the Source (1835 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20010) through January 28, 2017. For tickets and information visit the In Series website.