Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Miami Herald reviews I Love a Piano national tour

Christine Dolen is The Miami Herald's theater critic.

6 energetic actors channel Irving Berlin
The music of a prolific American composer, if not the man himself, is celebrated in a revue at the Parker.
When asked to define Irving Berlin's place in American music, fellow composer Jerome Kern famously said, ``Irving Berlin is American music.''

I Love a Piano, a peppy revue concocted by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, serves as a reminder of just how right Kern was.

A touring production of the show is at Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse through next weekend, but this isn't the first time I Love a Piano has been done in South Florida. A different -- and in some ways better -- production played Florida Stage in 2003. There, the show felt more intimate and touching (no surprise, since the Manalapan theater is about a fifth the size of the Parker), and both the cast and the design elements were stronger.

That's not to say there aren't some entertaining, impressive moments in this new production. Six energetic actors -- Mark Baratelli, Sean Schwebke, Summer Broyhill, Johnnie Moore, Darcie Bender and Karla Shook -- take the audience on a journey through 20th century American history, all filtered through the prism of Berlin's varied, enduring songs.

An antique upright piano with one annoying broken key stands in for Berlin himself, moving through the decades along with the cast. The cavalcade of hits begins even before Berlin's breakthrough with Alexander's Ragtime Band in 1911, and the sheer number of them will always be impressive.

Remember Isn't It a Lovely Day, I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm, Puttin' on the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek, Always, There's No Business Like Show Business? That's a small sampling of Berlin's prodigious output of songs about war, romance, heartbreak, yearning, love, loss.

Under the direction of Roderick and musical director Alex LeFevre, each actor gets a few (mostly) shining solo moments, though the performers are at their best when all six sing together.

Bender is the show's most accomplished dancer, and she sings a lovely version of What'll I Do. Shook delivers a haunting Russian Lullaby but doesn't capture all the pathos of Suppertime, a lament, first sung by Ethel Waters, by the widow of a lynched man. Moore, who sounds fine in his natural baritone range, barely squeezes out the tender upper notes of Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.

Moore, Shook, Baratelli and Broyhill pull off a delightful commingling of two counterpoint songs: You're Just in Love and An Old-Fashioned Wedding. (This is the song I sing! Woo!) And Schwebke has an athletically comic turn while singing Oh How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning as a sleepy soldier.

What doesn't work in the touring I Love a Piano are certain design elements -- when the spotlight hits the black set, for instance, it reveals a mottled paint job -- and the absence of any information about Israel Isidore Baline, aka Berlin. A little context, beyond six singers and an old piano, would be nice.

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