Continuing through June 28th at Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio 3 is I Love a Piano, a 64 song tribute to the man whose name is synonymous with American music – Irving Berlin. Living to the ripe old age of 101 at his Sutton Place apartment in Manhattan, Berlin composed over a thousand songs in his lifetime. Unable to read or write music, he composed on a transposing piano. (One of his pianos is now on display at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History.) His prolific work includes the scores for 17 Broadway shows (his most famous being “Call Me Madam” and “Annie Get Your Gun”) and such musical movies as “Top Hat”, “Holiday Inn”, “White Christmas”, “Easter Parade” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, to name a few. A co-founder of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) he has been awarded a Special Tony Award, an Academy Award, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Congressional Gold Medal for “God Bless America” and other patriotic songs.
“I Love a Piano’s” minimalist plot follows the journey of a piano as it moves through America from 1910 to 1950. Starting with Berlin’s music from his Tin Pan Alley days up until the Eisenhower era, the show includes songs that are now standards in the Great American Songbook such as, “Cheek to Cheek”, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “White Christmas”, “God Bless America” and six songs from the score of “Annie Get Your Gun”.
Choreographer and Director, Ellie Mooney has condensed this musical revue (which originally sported a cast of six) to a cast of four without omitting a single song. The four performers never stop moving. They are whirlwinds of activity. Not only does this keep the pace of the evening going at a lively trot, it also ensures that everyone sings a song for a reason. We never feel (as in so many other revues of this nature) that we are being simply “sung at”. These four characters, Alex, Eileen, George and Sadie sing as part of the natural progression of their situations and states of mind. And the charming choreography only enhances these moments. There are strong performances by all four cast members with some stand out numbers. For Denise Whelan as Sadie, there is “Russian Lullaby”, “Suppertime” and “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better”. For Owen Pelesh there is “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”, “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil”, and the Dance Break in “Mandy” where he does a soft shoe on sand with Ms. Mooney. “We’re a Couple of Swells” is a highlight with Ms. Mooney and Scott Langdon in full rag regalia. Mr. Langdon and Mr. Pelesh get to show off their comic chops in “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army” and the full company excels in Scene 3’s Silent Movie and Scene 5’s seven songs that take place in a 1930’s movie theater.
The set by Roman Tartarowicz resembles an old-fashioned drawing room with an appealing melange of old trunks and boxes off to one side. These boxes hold a variety of items (a bugle, a hat) that are employed throughout the evening. A working piano is situated in the middle which Langdon and Pelesh actually play at different points in the revue.
If you love Irving Berlin (and who doesn’t?) this is a delightful evening that you don’t want to miss. If you don’t know Irving Berlin – this is a great way to get a crash course in knowing his timeless music and lyrics.