Step lively

Watch Your Step

Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Harry B. Smith, Adapted by Mel Miller
Directed and choreographed by Thomas Mills
Musicals Tonight!
The MainStage at the 14th St. Y
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by David Mackler

Irving Berlin wasn't an unknown quantity in 1914 when Watch Your Step, the show that featured his first complete Broadway score, was produced. "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was a huge hit in 1911, and he had contributed songs to a variety of shows, including the Ziegfeld Follies. "Musicals Tonight!" has performed a valuable service by presenting their staging of this revue (directed and choreographed by Thomas Mills), and while the show is not a knockout, it's a pleasure to wallow for a while in the nostalgia of another age.

It is helpful to know that Vernon and Irene Castle were a major dance team of the time, and that this work was written for them. Here is where this production was most successful, and it was fortunate that Julian Brightman and Jennifer Miller were cast in the roles the Castles would have played. The show's plot is tenuous at best, having to do with a fortune being passed down only to someone who has never been in love, and various attempts to corrupt the one boy and one girl who are innocent enough to qualify. They promptly fall in love, of course. This plot was probably old hat in 1914, so the show needs all the spunk it can get in its musical numbers.

So when Brightman and Miller did numbers like "Show Us How To Do the Fox Trot," "I'm a Dancing Teacher Now" and "Move Over," the show was vivid and alive. Luckily, also on hand were Daniel Frank Kelley and Allison Walla playing the juvenile and the ingenue with just the right mixture of innocence and show biz savvy to put across the corniness in unexpectedly pleasurable ways. When they sang their love song "Lead Me to Love" and then followed it with "I Hate You" to cover up their romance (hey, they're not stupid, they want the fortune too) it's a definite delight, archaic though it may be.

Less successful, though not from lack of talent, were Rebecca Spencer and David Sabella who were saddled with antiquated jokes and songs that needed a different kind of panache to carry off. As Birdie, a showgirl intent on sending Kelley into romance, Spencer was vibrant and brassy; as Algy, a matinee idol who is his own best fan, Sabella had a lot of fun at his own expense - but the mustiness of the material was palpable. Which is fine for a historical record, but hoped for sparks did not fly.

Berlin's tunes were identifiable from the get-go - rhymes in songs that were recognizably his, like hallways/always, troubles/bubbles. But specialty numbers that would have shone with "current" talent were curious antiques ("I Gotta Go Back To Texas," "Bird of Paradise") even as they were well sung by the ensemble. Musical Director Mark Hartman on the piano deserved extra credit as much for being musically astute as for providing firm support for the cast.

The best known song in the score, "Simple Melody," was an early example of Berlin's musical magic, where two melodies are sung contrapuntally. As an encore, the cast sang the song again along with a couple of other Berlin songs of this style, including "You're Just In Love." It was a smashing ending, and a fine tribute to the music of Irving Berlin.

Also with Kirstie R. Bingham, Osborn Focht, Anne Catherine Hundhausen, Michael Dunn Litchfield, Aliza Loewy, Edward Prostak, Justin Roller, Lani Shipman, Amy Shure, David Titus, Matt Toronto.

 Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Musical Direction: 2
Acting: 1
Sets: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2001 David Mackler