Irving Berlin left his legacy in song through countless compositions that are still popular today, and his life was filled with as much drama as his music. The St. Bart's Players crafted a valentine to the musical genius in their latest production, The Melody Lingers On: The Songs of Irving Berlin. Kicking off the group's 75th diamond jubilee, the show is part show biz nostalgia, part history of New York, and wholly enjoyable.
Utilizing dialogue that was chronicled by the songwriter's offspring Mary Ellin Barrett in her book Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir, the book takes viewers back in time to the early days of vaudeville, where Berlin got his start. Re-enacting scenes from his personal and professional life, the script is swift and smart, and full of sentimental sentiments.
But of course, the music is the main focus of the production, and in that department, Berlin and the folks at St. Bart's came through with flying colors. Berlin's prolific songbook got solid interpretations from musical director Nancy Evers and her vibrant orchestra, featuring Joel Stein on synthesizer, Luke Batson on reed, James Erwin on percussion, and Evers herself at the piano. The orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Donald Johnson are lyrical and lively.
The songs were brought to life under the skillful guidance of director-choreographer Brian Feehan. He managed the difficult task of staging over 40 musical numbers with intelligence and wit, and while a few segments lacked focus and energy, most made an impact on the audience. Older audiences will sigh in recognition of the familiar tunes; the younger generation will discover these chestnuts with innocent enthusiasm.
Feehan also cast the show with a balanced group of versatile performers, beginning with Rob Riley standing in for the titular songster himself. Riley had an amiable personality that channeled both Berlin's unassuming manner and passion for the piano. The talented ensemble members shone in solo and group numbers; highlights included Robert Berger's smoothly sung "Steppin' Out Wth My Baby"; Amy Jane Finnerty's sensitive "Supper Time"; Elizabeth Gravitt's feisty version of "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun"; Joe Kassner's tribute to Fred Astaire in "Cheek to Cheek"; Scott Kerstetter's rapturous "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody"; Susan Neuffer's spirited "Shaking the Blues Away"; and Marc Strauss' humorous take on "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" and stirring interpretation of "White Christmas." Melissa Broder won special kudos for her comically quirky characterizations.
The real find of the evening was Vanessa Burke as Berlin's second wife and longtime love, Ellin Mackay. Burke displayed classic beauty and a sweet-sounding voice, but what really made her stand out was her poise and presence as the woman behind the man.
Lighting by Elizabeth Gaines quickly sets the mood for the various sequences, and Mira Goldberg costumed the cast in a countless array of period-defining outfits.
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Copyright 2002 Elias Stimac