Selling Elegance, Spirit, and History for Just a Song

Theatre Reviews: I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

CPCCILoveAPiano6[7]

After its most lavish and extravagant production ever, last November’s The Phantom of the Opera, what was CPCC Theatre going to do to follow up? Well, since the laws of mathematics and the logic of budgets still apply on Elizabeth Avenue, the answer was simple: economize! Rolling into the parking garage, where the second story was unusually unoccupied, I was worried the audience for I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin would be as drastically reduced as CP’s expenditures.

Not to worry, I didn’t find that many more empty seats at Halton Theater last Saturday night than I saw at last February’s How to Succeed. More importantly, considering the relative merits of Berlin and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show attracted a competitive enough turnout at auditions to yield a cast that is worthy of the music — including holdover Ryan Deal, who you may recall in the title role of The Phantom.

Like the audience, the orchestra isn’t reduced quite as much as the funding, a quintet led by music director Ellen Robison from the keyboard. They’re a busy bunch, accompanying the cast — all six of them triple threats to various degrees — through a songbook that includes 53 different titles. A few of these songs are reprised, and at one point, when Andy Faulkenberry’s “The Girl That I Marry” is juxtaposed with Corinne Littlefield’s “Old Fashioned Wedding” — while J. Michael Beech and Megan Postle are teaming up on the counterpoint of “You’re Just in Love” — there are four different vocalists onstage singing four different melodies simultaneously.

Conceived by Ray Roderick and arranger Michael Berkeley, Love a Piano never says Berlin’s name out loud. But the 11 scenes, beginning with Tin Pan Alley in 1910 and ending in a summer stock revival of Annie Get Your Gun in the late 1950’s, take us chronologically through the composer’s career. Or roughly so: “Old Fashioned Wedding” was written for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and you can bet the anachronisms don’t stop there.

With a generous portion of poetic license, the show sketches a musical portrait of a composer who was consistently able to mirror his times. The title tune, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” take us back to a sepia-tinted era when rags roamed alongside sentimentality. As we cut from band shell to speakeasy, “Pack Up Your Sings and Go to the Devil” and “Everybody’s Doing It” evoke the wicked carefree spirit of the Roaring ’20s during Prohibition.

Two scenes are devoted to the ’30s, “Blue Skies” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” offering consolation during the onset of the Great Depression. Then a suite of dance tunes, including “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek,” evokes the elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Thanks to Mel Brooks, the audience failed to take “Puttin’ on the Ritz” altogether seriously.

For some reason, Roderick — or perhaps CP’s director and choreographer, Ron Chisholm — bounced the heyday of dance marathons from the 1930s to the 1940s, sketching that lugubrious phenomenon with “Say It Isn’t So” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” When we authentically reached the World War II era, it was quite obvious that Berlin more than reflected the hopes, the pride, and the humor of the times. He simply was these things, with a flowering of songs that included “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “This Is the Army,” “Any Bonds Today,” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Even those left plenty of room to bring down the first-act curtain with two of Berlin’s most enduring songs, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.” A more judicious dividing line would have been the beginning of WW2 toward the end of the ’30s. As it stands, Roderick drops a bunch of CARE packages on the 1950s, including “Easter Parade” from 1933 and everything attached to Berlin’s sharpshooting homage to Annie Oakley, which premiered in 1946.

I Love A Piano

Photos by Chris Record

James Duke’s scenic and lighting design, relying heavily on period slides and Berlin show posters projected onto three screens, move us gracefully from era to era. But it’s Debbie Scheu who most colorfully clinches the deal with her cavalcade of costume designs. Chisholm’s choreographic demands certainly tax his cast, with Littlefield and Faulkenberry negotiating their steps with the most apparent ease. On the other hand, while Postle and Beech looked like they might not be up to their challenges, both of them surprised me with their hoofing.

Deal and Kayla Ferguson were the remaining couple, most memorable in their “Blue Skies” duet. All six of the singers proved to be quite capable, not at all fazed by the spotlight, but Deal and Littlefield were my favorite soloists. The ensembles were often very lively and charming, but a special pinch of conflict was added in the summer stock tableau when Ferguson, Littlefield, and Postle all auditioned to be Annie opposite Faulkenberry’s Frank Butler.

“Anything You Can Do,” usually a comical face-off between Frank and Annie, is set up as an audition piece. So the comedy is reborn — as a rollicking showdown between three aspiring Annies.

Eliza and Watson 3

Time and reality bend in curious ways in The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, now at UpStage in NoDa through February 21. But so does playwright Madeleine George’s title, so what else would you expect?

Three rather curious Watsons that we’ve already heard of are trotted out and shuffled in Three Bone Theatre’s production, directed by Robin Tynes. The first of these is a relative, shall we say, of the Watson computer that defeated its human opponents on Jeopardy in 2011. Eliza, who collaborated with IBM on the victorious Watson, is now in her living room, working independently on a new android that sports a far more human body.

We travel back to the 19th century for the other two Watsons that we know. The first of these is the Watson summoned to Alexander Graham Bell’s side when Pa Bell invented the telephone, his assistant Thomas A. Watson. But we don’t really see him, either, on that historic day in 1876. Instead, it’s Alex repeatedly calling for him in brief blackout vignettes between other scenes. No, we must wait until 1931, when Watson goes on record at Bell Labs, insisting that what his boss really said was, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want you.”

The third or fourth Watson, depending on how you tally the computer chips, is more in control of his narrative, for this is the Dr. John H. Watson who ostensibly chronicles nearly all of the Conan Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes. You’ll find that Watson Intelligence is all about connections Ð personal and electrical — and vague connections between the android and Sherlock’s sidekick are established by a fifth Watson, a tech dweeb hired by Eliza’s ex-husband to spy on her.

Compounding the absurdities, Tynes has chosen a black actor, Devin Clark, to play the whitest sidekick in the history of literature. What’s more, Clark is perfection as all the Watsons, human and robotic, plus a special set of scenes where he dons Sherlock’s deerstalker cap. Chesson Kusterer-Seagroves crystallizes Watson’s role as the archetypal listener, pouring out her heart to the robot and the tech dweeb in modern times and bringing an intriguing mystery to Watson at Baker Street in Sherlock’s absence.

Ken Mitten rounds out the cast as Bell and the two Merricks who cause their Elizas so much distress. He’s a powerful stage presence, but I’m sure he’ll be even better when he’s more secure with his lines and cues.

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