Review: ‘The Melody Lingers on — The Songs of Irving Berlin’

"The Melody Lingers on -- The Songs of Irving Berlin," is the only musical devoted to Berlin that has been approved by his estate, an understandable decision because the show is an unabashed love letter. A hybrid, sliding somewhere between book and revue, it lacks a strong narrative thrust, but has several singing and dancing highlights that do justice to 44 immortal tunes.

The Melody Lingers on — The Songs of Irving Berlin,” is the only musical devoted to Berlin that has been approved by his estate, an understandable decision because the show is an unabashed love letter. A hybrid, sliding somewhere between book and revue, it lacks a strong narrative thrust, but has several singing and dancing highlights that do justice to 44 immortal tunes.

Kathryn Crosby, Bing’s widow, makes a charming and genial host, and her interludes quoting anecdotes from a memoir by Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellin Barrett are interesting without digging too deeply. They could use reworking to make them more organic and interactive. Crosby’s delivery is sincere, and she looks glamorous in a variety of Sharell L. Martin gowns. She sings in a low, mellow voice that adds poignancy to such tunes as “Blue Skies,” a lovely moment enhanced by Colin Freeman’s piano.

Todd Murray appears as Berlin, and his tall, All-American leading man looks and style are startlingly, even jarringly, at odds with the man he’s emulating. Murray has a fine voice. It takes him time to loosen up and shed a certain self-conscious charm, but he offers skillful interpretations of such contrasting tunes as “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” and “Remember,” and blends comfortably with his 12 other co-stars.

One of Murray’s strongest moments is his duet, “I Love a Piano,” with David Engel, and Engel is outstanding, the production’s main artistic and commercial asset. Portraying Fred Astaire, he captures all the nuances of “Say It Isn’t So,” and does a knockout version of “Stepping out With My Baby,” breaking into a tap routine with such proficiency and verve that the actual Astaire — a man not known for flinging around compliments — might have applauded.

Act one is a competently organized rundown of the Berlin hit parade. It does, however, have the feel of recitation. The whole enterprise leaps alive in the second half, thanks to director-choreographer Jamie Rocco’s heavier emphasis on dance.

Now and then a tune shows its age (“Snookey Ookums,” a slack spot in the MGM film, “Easter Parade”), but “When the Midnight Train Leaves for Alabama,” is an exciting ensemble piece with Astaire-Garland “Easter Parade” moves. Calvin Perry kicks up a storm on a group version of “Shaking the Blues Away,” and has an overall striking talent that could be further utilized.

Craig A. Meyer (“You’re Just in Love”) and Steve Kirwan (“The Girl That I Marry”) are also topnotch performers, and among the female cast members, Christina Saffran Ashford brings a smoky flair to “Suppertime.”  Although Melina Marie Kalomas has a more vibrato-driven, theatrical voice than her co-stars, these qualities are appropriate for her sketchily conceived role as Mrs. Berlin, the socialite Berlin married despite violent opposition by her father.  Kalomas’ “What’ll I Do?” is softly affecting.

Barreling into the homestretch with Berlin’s biggest Broadway triumphs, Fiama Fricano belts out a batch of tunes from “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Call Me Madam” channeling Ethel Merman with gutsy conviction. Kate Smith takes care of patriotism in a video segment of “God Bless America,” and Crosby and Murray harmonize on “White Christmas,” the Bing Crosby winter standard that was composed in Beverly Hills.

“Melody” entertainingly makes its point: that a man with severely limited formal and musical education, and inability to write in any key except F# without the aid of a transposing piano, was able to create some of the most versatile and memorable music the world has ever known.

The Melody Lingers on -- The Songs of Irving Berlin

El Portal Theater; 360 seats; $50 top

Production

A Tripp Hornick in association with Edward Sayegh presentation of a West Coast premiere musical in two acts.  Directed and choreographed by Jamie Rocco. Dialogue from book, "Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir" by Mary Ellin Barrett; script continuity, Tom Briggs; conceived by Karin Baker.

Creative

Sets, Matt Scarpino; costumes, Sharell L. Martin; lighting, R. Kent Sheranian; sound, Brian Mohr; production stage manager, Steven R. Donner; music direction, Colin Freeman; orchestrations and vocal arrangements, Donald Johnston.  Opened and reviewed June 23, 2005; runs through July 10. Running time: 2 HOURS

Cast

With: Kathryn Crosby, Todd Murray, Melina Marie Kalomas, David Engel, Christina Saffran Ashford, Fiama Fricano, Kristi Holden, Steve Kirwan, Aimee Mauzey, Craig A. Meyer, Calvin Perry, Lois Bourgon, Rebecca Morris. Conductor: Colin Freeman.
Musicians: Vladimir Polomatidi, Rusty Higgins, Bruce Otto, Colin Freeman, John Smith, Mike Packer.

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