By Daniel Skora
…though back in 1932 when Mr. Berlin was writing the lyrics to his whimsical song about the need to conserve during those dark days of the Depression, he would have expected a but two. He titled his song “Two Cheers, Instead of Three”, which is included in the show, and even extended his invitation to make do with less to include the flag, asking everyone to cheer for the red and the white, but not for the blue.
Meadow Brook Theatre is presenting “! Love a Piano”, a musical review of the songs of Irving Berlin. America and Irving Berlin walked hand and hand through the 20th century. He was born in 1888 and lived to be 101. One way of telling the story of the American people during that century ended up in the history books; the other, as interpreted by the musical genius of Irving Berlin, can be found in the Great American Songbook.
Irving Berlin was prolific. He wrote almost 1,500 songs: ballads, war songs, show tunes, patriotic numbers, and songs that became seasonal hits. He even started the ragtime dance craze with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, his first major success. Many of his songs have become standards. Artists such as Al Jolson, The Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong have given voice to his compositions. There’s even a Crash Test Dummies version of his holiday classic, “White Christmas”.
“I Love A Piano” is not a history of Irving Berlin, though the songs clearly reveal a passionate, patriotic, and humorous individual. Rather, it’s a history of our country as reflected in his songs and, as conceived by the show’s creators Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, the travels of an upright piano. The piano serves more as a stage prop than musical accompaniment, but it marches along in lockstep with Berlin’s songs. We first see it in a music store that sells sheet music. It finds its way to a 1920’s speakeasy, than moves to a street corner during the depression where it’s sold almost for a song (ten dollars), next to a WWII USO Christmas Party (perfect time to sing Mr. Berlin’s “White Christmas), and eventually a casting call for “Annie Get Your Gun”, the Broadway show for which Berlin wrote the music and lyrics.
Along the way, the show overflows with over 50 gorgeous Irving Berlin creations. There are the familiar, like “Blue Skies”, “Cheek to Cheek”, “Puttin’ On the Ritz”, “God Bless America”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” , and lesser known gems like “Snooky Ookums”, “We’re a Couple of Swells” (a show stopper featuring Lucas Wells and Sarah Parnicky), “Suppertime”, and “Pack Up Your Sins and Go To the Devil”.
Under the direction of Travis W. Walter, Meadow Brook Theatre has pulled out all the stops in this highly entertaining and visually stunning production. It begins with an amazing cast that can sing, dance, and act. Five are very familiar to MB audiences: Ricky Gee, Leslie Ann Handlelman, Stephanie Wahl, Lucas Wells, and Ron Williams. Sarah Parnicky is a New York based performer with a résumé that’s both extensive and impressive.
“Piano” is a physically demanding show, with almost every song accompanied by choreography (Ryan Dombres, Choreographer and Stephanie Wahl, Dance Captain) or some other brand of physical expression. The show sports more costumes than you’re likely to see in any show this season, dazzlingly designed by Corey Collins and assisted by Maureen Thomas. Scenic design, which remains throughout the interior of a sound stage but adapts easily for various scenes that take place elsewhere, is by Jen Price Fick, sound by Mike Duncan, and lighting by Matthew J. Fick. Stage manager for the production is Terry W. Carpenter.
The show closes with a spectacular performance by the cast and band of “I Love a Piano”. Don’t leave the theatre too quickly because you’ll miss the extended version played by the eight piece band under the direction of conductor and pianist Matthew Croft. And if that song doesn’t make you want to go out and buy a piano so that you can love one, too, or at least learn how to play one, you probably don’t have a musical bone in your body.
A lot of shows claim to be don’t-miss theatre. “I Love a Piano” is really truly absolutely one you shouldn’t pass up: for the songs, for the music, for the performances, for the color and costumes and spectacle, and for the feel-good sensation that will linger with you after for a good long while.
“I Love A Piano” runs through May 14th. Tickets are available by calling the Meadow Brook box office at 1.248.377.3300 or going online at www.ticketmaster.com. Meadow Brook Theatre is located on the campus of Oakland University in the city of Rochester.