This ditty-crammed tuner is one of only two shows authorized to use the massive Irving Berlin song catalog. Scripter team of Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley infuse this vocal love fest with 64 Berlin songs, ranging from the forgettable to the sublime. While not all of the songs prove worthy of revival, performances by a capable six-person ensemble are first-rate under the imaginative, swift-paced staging of helmer-choreographer Roderick. An adroit onstage band, led by musical director-pianist John Glaudini, nicely buoys the proceedings.
Using an upright piano as a centerpiece, the action follows Berlin’s career from his earliest hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” As the piano, with its one bad key, moves through the 20th century, it becomes the instrument of record at a sheet music store, a pre-WWI parlor, a ’20s speakeasy, a silent movie theater, a Depression-era dance hall, a WWII canteen and a 1950s summer-stock theater.
Along the way, the ensemble warbles such notable Berlin standards as “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Always,” “Change Partners” and those inevitable Berlin show stoppers “God Bless America” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
The ensemble members are often paired up as the perennial young hopefuls Jim (Dan Pacheco) and Eileen (Jill Townsend), egotistical leads George (Kevin Earley) and Ginger (Kathi Gillmore) and seasoned pros Alex (Stephen Breithaupt) and Sadie (Julie Dixon Jackson).
Pacheco and Townsend put their vocal and hoofing abilities on impressive display with the comical “We’re a Couple of Swells” and “Let’s Go Slummin’.” Breithaupt and Jackson score with the contrapuntal “You’re Just in Love.” Earley and Gilmore offer a melodious “Isn’t It a Lovely Day” and Berlin’s ode to prenuptial conflict, “Old-Fashioned Wedding.” The men unite with a properly sophisticated “A Pretty Girl Is Just Like a Melody,” while the ladies take advantage of the canteen setting to rip through a swinging Andrews Sisters tribute, “Any Bonds Today.”
Each ensemble member has ample opportunity to display his or her solo wares. Particularly notable are Jackson’s haunting renditions of the Ethel Waters’ classic “Suppertime” and the seldom-heard “Russian Lullaby.” Earley puts his effortless range to good use on “The Girl That I Marry.” As the girl left behind by her soldier beau, Townsend delivers a heartfelt “What’ll I Do?”
Showing an abundance of vocal and physical skills, Pacheco offers a perfect soldier’s lament, “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” and a yearning “White Christmas.” Breithaupt is equally at home with the preening “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and the gently comforting “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.” Also moving smoothly between tempos is Gillmore, who belts out “Let Yourself Go” and settles quietly into the lovelorn ballad “Say It Isn’t So.”
This overly long production is hampered by a ponderous seven-scene first act, followed by a much more entertaining three-scene second act. A more workable musical balance could be achieved with the elimination of such first-act clunkers as “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” “Two Cheers, Instead of Three,” “Everybody Step” and “I’m Getting Tired So I Can Sleep.”
Despite its length, “I Love a Piano” admirably celebrates the contributions of one of the 20th century’s most gifted and versatile American musical artists.