Ellie Mooney’s overridingly entertaining production of I LOVE A PIANO at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 opens with a man (Owen Pelesh) dressed as a Walnut stagehand noodling at an ancient piano in lieu of following his workmates to Coco. The bit neatly set up the story of a piano as a link to Irving Berlin’s 75 years of prolific songwriting.
All of a sudden, Pelesh, shedding his stagehand hoodie and Walnut baseball cap, for Edwardian finery, starts playing ragtime, with music director David Jenkins taking over the heavy lifting on a backstage baby grand. Pelesh, Mooney, and Scott Langdon go through a medley of mid-tempo songs praising music, femininity, and romance with total show biz pizazz. Costumes come and go like magic, props appear for one comic moment before fading into oblivions, musical instruments from triangles and kazoos to guitars materialize, and the tiny Independence stage is teeming with vibrant music, comic antics, a Fanny Brice-like repertory of expressions, and razzmatazz that makes you think I LOVE A PIANO is going to be an express ride to a passel of tunes and a walloping occasion of entertainment.
On some levels, that impression holds. Berlin’s oeuvre is so versatile and captures so many moods, attitudes, and situation, it is its own reward, individually, Pelesh, Langdon, Mooney, and Denise Whelan are powerhouse talents who can bring texture to a Berlin ballad and vaudeville flash to novelty numbers and up tunes.
Conceived with a book by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, PIANO is a valentine to Irving Berlin music through the ages. Groups of songs are assigned to given decade range from the 1910s, when Berlin was peddling his sheet music in retail stores, to the 1950s, when “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Call Me Madam” established him as a musical theater composer. Roderick and Berkeley use songs as they think they will fit a period or work within a medley. Tunes are do not necessarily appear in the decade or the context in which they were written. That’s Okay I LOVE A PIANO is not meant as a history. It has stories to tell, one for each decade as World Wars come and go, the Depression affects hundreds of millions, and peace leads to a different America following World War II.
The conceivers chock their show with 50 or more Berlin compositions, from the most popular such as “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” to the gorgeous romantic waltzes, “What” I Do”?,” “Always,” and “Remember,” to obscure ditties such as ‘Pick Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” “Two Cheers Instead of Three,” and “Snooky Ookums.” But with medleys of so many songs, PIANO doesn’t keep up its stamina. Energy flags as one sequences fades into another.
Still, when he gets a chance to be noticed amid the commotion, Berlin’s music carries the day. It is a pleasure to hear so many fine songs, especially in an age of mediocre musical lyricism. Read the full review >> [Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street] April 28-June 28, 2015; www.walnutstreettheatre.org.