Photo by Amy Pasquantonio
Cast members perform while surrounding the titular piano.
By AARON KRAUSE
If America’s favorite Little Orphan Annie were a real person, you couldn’t help but believe that the vibrant red-headed young girl would have befriended composer-lyricist Irving Berlin (1888-1989). And vice versa.
Surely their shared optimism would have endeared them to each other. And it’s hardly a stretch to believe that Annie would have been patriotic as well. Perhaps, however, she would not have been as fervently patriotic as Berlin, an immigrant turned proud American.
Doubtless, especially during these dark days, patriotism and positivity prove to be balms for the soul. And we enjoy refreshing doses of both in I Love a Piano. It is Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley’s invigorating musical revue or “revusical” celebrating Berlin’s glorious music.
For the second time in about seven years, The Wick Theatre in Boca Raton is presenting the stirring I Love a Piano. The current production, which opens The Wick’s 10th season, runs through Nov. 12.
While I did not witness The Wick’s 2016 production, this time around, the winning mounting features six talented triple threat performers. Their expressive, pleasant, strong, and versatile voices, accompanied by a vibrant live band, deftly capture the emotions in Berlin’s moving music. (Berkeley handled musical arrangements).
The performers do not only sing, but believably act. Further, they dance gracefully and energetically under director and choreographer DJ Salisbury’s assured guidance. The performers slide, spin, leap, tap, and cartwheel into our hearts.
Under Salisbury and musical director Michael Ursua’s deft leadership, the six performers are Aaron Bower, Christina Carlucci, Alex Jorth, Tari Kelly, James Patterson, and Ryan Michael Petty.
Meanwhile, the band members are Ursua conducting and playing piano, Wes Anthony on Woodwinds, Gustavo Correa on violin, Michael Dorman and Julie Jacobs on percussion, Jason Pyle on trombone, Tom Stancampiano on trumpet, and Aaron Stang on guitar.
The show features more than 60 of Berlin’s hits without turning the piece into a tell-all bio-musical of Beriln’s life. In addition, I Love a Piano does not take the form of a concert, with a haphazardly-arranged list of Berlin’s songs. Instead, Roderick and Berkeley have arranged the order of the songs by theme and by implementing a rather thin narrative. In particular, we follow the life of a brown upright piano from its early days out of the factory in 1910 to the late 1950s. That time frame amounts to roughly the same time span as Berlin’s vast, celebrated career in American music.
Unquestionably, this critically-acclaimed show’s strength, in addition to The Wick’s fine cast, is Berlin’s diverse, instantly recognizable and memorable music. Undoubtedly, it beautifully expresses emotions with its heartfelt lyrics and glorious melodies. The prolific Berlin composed heartfelt songs that have stuck in our minds and souls for many decades. And to give us an idea of the depth and breadth of Berlin’s music, Roderick and Berkeley have included more than 60 of Berlin’s gems in I Love a Piano. It runs more than two hours, including an intermission.
While this show possesses positive qualities, and the Wick’s production is triumphant, I Love a Piano falls short in some areas. For instance, the premise is weak. While the show follows a single piano over many years, we never get the sense that it’s, for instance, a family heirloom. While we learn that the brown beauty of an instrument has a broken key, and it rarely if ever leaves the stage, we learn little more about the specific instrument. We may not even hear someone actually play it. Rather, it appears as though the performers mime playing the piano, and the sound comes from the band.
Another shortcoming involves the characters. While Roderick and Berkeley have named them, they undergo little to no development. And they do not possess arcs. Indeed, as long as the show’s creators named them, it might have been nice to get to know Ginger, Eileen, George, Sadie, Alex, and Jim.
While it is nice that we get to hear so many of Berlin’s songs (it gives us an idea of how prolific the man was), the show does not feature entire songs accept at the two acts’ openings and closings. With only parts of the songs presented to audiences, the performers do not get the opportunity to truly dig into the songs and shine. And some audience members who are big Berlin fans might want to hear the whole songs. But again, the performers sparkle with the show’s given material. In fact, they glisten as brightly as some the production’s glistening costumes.
Speaking of the clothes that the performers wear, it appears as though they undergo many quick costume changes in between scenes. So, kudos to veteran, award-wining costume designer Ellis Tillman. Truly, his varied outfits seamlessly and vividly transforms the performers into different people. But we must also credit the backstage assistants who helped the performers quickly in and out of costumes.
Meanwhile, Jesse Worley’s work as sound designer helps us not only hear but understand the words that the performers sing and speak. And lighting designer Katie Whittmore helps to focus the performers and establish moods. Naturally, during upbeat numbers, the lighting is realistic and bright, and dimmer for more somber songs.
While the scenic design is minimal, it effectively helps place us in locations such as Alexander’s Music Shop, one of the show’s first settings in 1910. As the show progresses, we “travel” over the years to a variety of locations. They include a parlor, speakeasy, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a movie theater, a ballroom, a Stage Door Canteen, a junkyard, and a Summer Stock theater.
During the show, we experience such historical events and times as Prohibition, The Great Depression, and World War II.
During the early years, we hear such classics as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” A performer singing the piece beckons us with her fingers. It is as though she is personally inviting us to “come on and hear” Alexander’s band.
The sunny song “Blue Skies” helps to suffuse the show with optimism during bleak times. And the comforting, Lullabye-like “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” may be able to work better than any form of melatonin you may have taken in the past. But rest assured, if the soothing rendition lulls you to sleep, more vibrant songs will stir you awake. So, too, will the celebratory anthem to showbusiness, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” There is also the playful, even cocky, “Anything You Can Do” to get your competitive juices flowing.
By the way, both of these latter two songs come from the 1946 Broadway musical, Annie Get Your Gun. It is about sharpshooter Annie Oakley (1860-1926). She starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The show touches on Oakley’s romance with sharpshooter Frank E. Butler (1847-1926). While Annie Get Your Gun’s librettists were siblings Dorothy and Herbert Fields, Berlin wrote the lyrics and music. We hear these songs during a scene set during the late 1950’s in a Midwest Summer Stock Theater.
“Easter Parade,” as well as the nostalgic, peaceful “White Christmas” find their way into the show. Performers deliver the latter serenely and with the proper nostalgia. Ditto for “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.” The show also includes humor, such as in the song, “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”
If you want to get an idea of Berlin’s ability to write vividly, listen only to “How Deep is the Ocean.”
Of course, the title song comes at the end and we hear “Puttin’ On The Ritz” and “God Bless America” during earlier scenes.
Director/choreographer Salisbury keeps the action interesting by, for instance, moving the performers around the stage. Fortunately, they are not stationary for too long as they act, sing, and dance.
In 1924, songwriter Jerome Kern astutely observed that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.”
He wrote joyful songs as skillfully as he composed more somber numbers such as “Suppertime,” sung here with believable heartache.
Early on in I Love a Piano, a character requests that the music stop; there should be no noise after 10 p.m., the person states.
“It’s not noise, it’s music,” another character responds.
It is music indeed.
The Wick Theatre’s production of I Love a Piano runs through Nov. 12 at the company’s stately theater space, 7901 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton. For tickets and more information, go to https://thewick.org, call (561) 995-2333 or send an email to boxoffice@theWick.org. Additionally, box office hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Photo by Amy Pasquantonio
Some of costume designer Ellis Tillman’s fancy period outfits are on display during this scene.