I Love a Piano, Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin, conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley; musical arrangements by Michael Berkeley. Directed by Trey Compton. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Jerielle Morwitz and Shaun Rice; photo: provided
"..because that man of mine ain't comin' home no more."
If there's a moment there's a song for it, an Irving Berlin song probably. Even though he dominated the music business, the popular songs as well as the stage musical songs, from the early 1910s through the early 1960s, there is something wonderfully contemporary about so many of them today. We may not be singing "Marie Of Sunny Italy" any longer but how long can we go without "White Christmas," "God Bless America," or "There's No Business Like Show Business" playing through our brains, coming out of our mouths. If there's a song to lighten, inspire or take care of a crisis Irving Berlin will be in there somewhere.
That, really, is the basis for the revuesical currently on stage at the Theatre Barn in New Lebanon. It's called "I Love a Piano" and there are so many familiar songs in this show that you become actually grateful when a less well-known item pops up. To hear "What Can You Do With a General?" again is a joy and to watch two youngsters try to be as funny as Judy Garland and Fred Astaire with "A Couple of Swells" is actually palatable in these troubled times. While this show has been around a while (this is my third production to review) it is always a pleasure to sit back and enjoy the work of America's keynote songwriter.
This New Lebanon production has some lovely values going for it. Two of the six principals, Jerielle Morwitz and Shaun Rice, are like old friends for us who attend the Barn regularly each season. Rice recently appeared in this company's "Gutenberg, the Musical" and Morwitz has been in more shows here than I can easily count. Both are extremely talented and successfully put over every number they do and engage us with the simple sincerity of their scenes. Rice is a graceful dancer and a gifted singer who seems able to accomplish easily every task laid out before him. Morwitz is a marvel, with her red hair and her large smile, a voice that kills and a body to match it. Her rendition of the Ethel Waters song, "Suppertime," misplaced in time but effective none-the-less, was most moving and beautiful and I was grateful for every lasting minute of it. I could hear her do it every night, in fact.
Faced with the perfection that these two bring to the stage, their four compatriots have a bit of trouble keeping up. Best of the bunch is Kimberly Suskind whose blonde beauty and sweet voice combine to make her numbers attractive and appealing. Theresa Whitt, making her Theater Barn debut is fine, although her voice sometimes faded away out of hearing. Whether it was lack of training or placement or fear, it was unfortunate for when she could be heard she was delightful.
The two other men in the show, Stephanos Bacon and Maclain Dassatti are a very mismatched pair. Bacon has the prettiness and freshness of youth and his vocal placement was a bit out of whack at times. Dassatti also seemed to have key and note placement difficulties throughout the show. Both men did very well in the ensembles and it was only in the solos and duets where they seemed out of step with their partners. In one set of numbers, all Fred Astaire classics, both men got lost - Dassatti with his pitches and Bacon with his rhythms. I trust that playing this difficult, dissonant double trio will make the difference.
Production values run high on this show. Abe Phelps has designed a highly practical and most attractive set including mock foot lights. Logane Robinson has created effective costumes (not always period ones though) that work for the players and the songs. Allen E. Phelps lighting plan underscores the musical numbers nicely and he often is the making of a number. Lara Hayhurst has done an admirable job of choreographing this show; often it is her movement that brings out the best in a song or a sequence.
Trey Compton's direction is perfection. There is not a thing, not a moment in this show that I would wish to be changed. The hour and forty-seven minutes literally flew by and the shorter second act showed so much improvement in all of the players that it absolutely felt far too short.
I Love a Piano plays at the Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY through August 17. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989 or go online at www.theaterbarn.com.