Timeless Music Wins Out
Perhaps this will give you some idea of the effect of I Love a Piano: The morning after seeing it, seated in my hairstylist's chair while he snipped away, I started humming "Cheek to Cheek." Just as I was beginning to wonder if I was embarrassing him and should stop, he joined right in: "And I seem to find the happiness I seek/When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek," we crooned in unison. Okay, we didn't join hands and twirl around the room afterward, but it was a definite moment. Over the last fifteen years, we've dissected TV shows, gossiped, reminisced about our childhoods and argued politics. But we have never -- repeat, never -- been moved to song before.
I Love a Piano is a tribute to Irving Berlin. An upright piano with one broken key stands in for the composer himself; six performers circle the instrument; over the course of the evening they sing dozens of Berlin songs. There's almost no dialogue and a very slender plot line. We first see the piano in a music store. In later incarnations, it's plinking out jazz tunes in a speakeasy, accompanying a silent movie, sitting abandoned on the street during the Depression, being used by an amateur theater group auditioning hopefuls for Annie Get Your Gun.
Writers Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley really didn't have to do that much work on the script, however. Berlin wrote prolifically from 1908 through the second World War and into the '50s. (Although he lived until 1989, dying at the age of 101, Berlin apparently spent most of his last thirty years in bitter seclusion.) He didn't read music and could barely play the piano, but his tunes, rhythms and sentiments were irresistible, and for decades his songs represented a genuine music of the people, from the innocent silliness of "Snooky Ookums" through the Depression-era "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" to the postwar "Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army" and, of course, the classics: "White Christmas" and "God Bless America." Long after she became a widow, my mother talked about dancing with my father to the strains of "Cheek to Cheek" on her wedding day, and I'm sure a multitude of Americans have similar memories of Berlin melodies. So the song groupings in I Love a Piano -- which are very well put together -- do all the work of evoking ideas and emotions.
The set is creative, with large panels featuring a succession of expressive period photographs, and the band is tight and exuberant, but it's the six performers who really make this production soar. They break into three couples: Ellie Mooney and Shonn Wiley are the ingenues of the group; Stephanie J. Block and Jeffry Denman represent the soigné leads; Michael E. Gold and Alex Ryer are a middle-aged but still debonair duo. I spent a good bit of the evening engaged in the pleasurable activity of trying to decide just which of these performers I liked best. Ellie Mooney is a tiny blonde with a big voice, swift feet and all kinds of energy. Stephanie Block is tall, dark and elegant, and she sings like an angel. Alex Ryer has an Ethel Merman belt and a lot of presence. The three women get to strut their stuff in a hilarious rendition of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better," hindering and one-upping each other with infectious glee. Block does a wistful, spirited "I Love a Piano," Mooney is touching on "What'll I Do?" and -- full of feeling and entirely minus kitsch -- Ryer embodies everything right about this country in "God Bless America."
Then there are the men. I kept falling in love with them sequentially. First Wiley would win my heart with his rich, full tenor and elastic dancing, then Denman slid from the rakish "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil" to a beautifully moving "How Deep Is the Ocean?" and finally Gold simply took over the stage with full and seasoned authority, as light on his feet as any of the youngsters and equally at home with a romantic ballad and a kick-up-your-heels dance number.
I have only two quibbles with this production. I presume director/choreographer/creator Ray Roderick wanted to give us a full panoply of Berlin songs, but it's downright cruel to provide tiny bits of "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "I'm Steppin' Out With My Baby," "How Deep Is the Ocean?" and other such gems and then snatch the rest of the song away. The numbers Roderick chose to present in full were often the lesser-known ones, and certainly it's laudable to bring these to our attention. But "Suppertime," for instance, no matter how movingly performed by Ryer, isn't really a very good song. (If you compare it with the similarly themed but far subtler and lovelier "My Man's Gone Now" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, its weaknesses become very apparent). Couldn't we have had more "I'm Steppin' Out With My Baby" instead?
Second, why are middle-aged women so universally ridiculed in this culture? The skit in which Alex Ryer thinks the comments made about the age and infirmity of the piano are meant for her isn't very funny. Nor is the number in which the younger men express distaste when they find themselves accidentally paired with her. There are no similar jokes about Michael Gold. It's true, all these sallies are gentle, and Ryer gives back as good as she gets. Still, you'd think an audience that responded quite audibly to the lyric about "love, honor and obey" in one of the songs might also be a little put off by this dated humor.
Other than that, I Love a Piano is a treat, a reminder of a time when entertainers seemed more to resonate with than to exploit the zeitgeist, helping Americans to endure war and deprivation with exuberance, song and style.
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