Through December 17|
IRVING BERLIN’S AMERICA O’Connell & Company/Park School
By Augustine Warner
There’s an old legend that people see their entire lives in those last moments before death overcomes them, a chance to look back at the good and the bad and for those who believe in that last judgement, get an early look at the charges they may face.
Chip Deffaa took that premise to his look at perhaps the greatest American songwriter, Irving Berlin, on the last day of his life, September 22, 1989, with “Irving Berlin’s America,” aged 101.
It all takes place in and around his luxury home on Manhattan’s Beekman Place, symbol of the wealth a poor Russian Jewish immigrant accumulated by writing the music of his century.
Of course, there is also the music he bequeathed to his adopted country, “God Bless America.”
At this time of year, there’s also “White Christmas.”
Neither song is in this show.
The music in this show tells the story of a journey from the pogroms of Russia to cultural supremacy.
The structure of the show is Jack (Matthew Mooney), a young man who knows about every song Berlin (Bill Group) ever wrote, published or unpublished.
He’s allowed into Berlin’s home, as the ailing and aging songwriter wonders if he’s sick or if the story is taking place in his fevered mind.
The tap-dancing Jack is dressed all in white, clearly suggesting he’s Berlin’s angel.
It’s just the two guys on stage, with music director Susan Shaw’s piano pounding from off-stage.
The piano is the biggest problem.
For some reason, it’s so loud it often overwhelms the singers and that’s not what’s supposed to happen.
If you go, and you should, sit on the opposite end of the seats from the piano.
Group’s Berlin gets healthier as the show goes along and the cane becomes less essential, as he sings and dances.
Berlin’s story is the changes in American entertainment culture as the 20th Century goes along, from quick music and songs in dive bars to the heights of Broadway and then Hollywood, knowing and writing for the great stars of the age.
He has stories about all of them, about their insecurities and fears and how he massaged that with his songs, like Fannie Brice, Al Jolson and Bing Crosby.
Of course, this is a guy who almost never went out in public, sitting in his Beekman Place mansion, playing his song-writer’s piano and painting.
The music progresses as Berlin learned how to move from new lyrics for old music to writing for himself, to writing about himself, like “When I Lost You,” lamenting the loss of his first wife only months after marriage.
(Local angle: She’s buried in Forest Lawn.)
Only a real fanatic would know most of these songs and probably of Berlin’s close friendship with George M. Cohan, another of those towering figures of popular culture in the last century, and some Cohan songs in this show, like “The Yankee Doodle Boy.”
For the audience, you just sit back and watch for songs like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “I Love A Piano,” “Some Sunny Day,” “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning” and the classic Ziegfeld Follies song, here with Jack, “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody.”
The show is filled with Mooney tap-dancing, with songs like “I Love A Piano” or “Mandy.”
If you go expecting to hear a roll call of Berlin music from Broadway or the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, this isn’t the show for you.
Instead, just sit back and let the music flow over you and enjoy.
It’s a truly American story, immigrant who makes good and becomes an essential element in popular culture.
Group and Mooney provide strong performances on Joel J. Resnikoff’s spare set, looking at music and a life.
That’s why it’s “Irving Berlin’s America” and we just live in it.
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