Theatre in Review

As I entered the Cadillac Palace Theatre – originally the Orpheum Circuit’s lavish vaudeville flagship before keeping up with the times to become a golden age movie palace – the simple, classy screen that hung over the stage gave me hope for the evening’s entertainment. There was the show’s title and logo, red and white on a bright blue backing, all nostalgia, all sheen, all promise of a combination of the silver screen, of classic composition, of live theatrical talent. I could hardly wait for the screen to rise and the show to start.

But first, in full disclosure, I’ve never watched the movie straight through. Sure, I’ve seen the whole thing in fits and starts and bits and pieces through the years (married, as I am, to one of its biggest fangirls). But I’m more of a fan of the rock and rollers – the Little Richards, the Orbisons, the Chucks and Jerry Lees and Buddies with something a little randier and a little rowdier and a little more real – who came along and did away with the post-war schmaltz. What I mean is, while I appreciate, no, adore, earlier Hollywood musicals like The Wizard of Oz or even Berlin’s Easter Parade, as well as later ones like The Music Man, I have no real sentimental attachment to Bing and Rosemary. I figured I’d be an objective audience, a fresh set of eyes and ears for this production.

The show began and these eyes and ears weren’t impressed. The sets were bright and looked the part – the scene with the song “Snow” on a train car was beautiful, a real mid-century-modern knockout – but they weren’t the 1950's real thing. The actors, too, were talented and pleasant as they played their parts, but they weren’t Bing or Rosemary or Danny or Vera. Nobody could be.

So, as the first act progressed, I remained unimpressed. The story (and the music, and the sets, and the cast) were fine, but the show needed some charisma, it needed some pizazz, it needed something.

Where that something did come up was when the show added tunes by Berlin that weren’t in the movie. These songs hadn’t been staked out by the film’s icons, and the current production’s cast wasn’t forced to approximate the ideal they’d set. They were fresher. They gave this cast room to show their talents, to show themselves, and not just takes on someone else. An example was “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun.” Throughout the night, the female lead, Kerry Conte, had Rosemary Clooney’s shoes to fill, a task I did not envy. But during this number, she fit right into an Andrews-esque trio, her vocals polished, her moves authentic. The lead singer in said number, Karen Ziemba’s Martha, stood out not just here, but in her own featured piece earlier that also strayed from the film and added to the show. Other standouts included: young Makayla Joy Connolly, who had a fine feature of her own; Kristyn Pope, who lit up the stage as recurring Rita and part of the ensemble; and Conrad John Schuck, whose General Waverly/Innkeeper Hank was equal parts Patton and grandpa.

And as I said, while the first act dragged, the second act moved at a much better pace, better utilized the cast, and ended the night with some holiday cheer (spoiler alert: the show is called White Christmas). So if it’s an exact reproduction of the Technicolor glow and the old-microphone glisten of the film you’re after, stay in and watch it on TV. But if you’re just looking for a feel-good family jumpstart to the holiday season, then this might be the show to see.

White Christmas is being performed at Cadillac Palace Theatre through December 3rd. For more show information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

Published in Theatre in Review

“Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music. Emotionally, he honestly absorbs the vibrations emanating from the people, manners and life of his time and, in turn, gives these impressions back to the world—simplified, clarified and glorified.” - Jerome Kern

 

There are shows that make one proud to be an American, proud to be Jewish and proud to be of immigrant descent and Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin currently performed at Royal George Theatre is one show that does all three. 

 

Felder proves yet again that he is a consummate master of the one person show. While his bio/docu/musicals about famous composers, from his George Gershwin Alone, to Fryderyk Chopin, to Ludwig van Beethoven, to Maestro Leonard Bernstein thrilled Chicago and LA audiences and critics alike, this production and his  portrayal of Irving Berlin is quite simply the icing on the cake of his career.

 

Irving Berlin, whose real name was Israel Isidore Baline and whose musical background included that his father was a cantor (singer for the Temple), was only eleven years old when he left his house to find work as a singing waiter because "there were too many mouths to feed" even with his pennies earned as a paperboy.

 

Although Berlin's first hits were more comical and vaudevillian like “Marie from Sunny Italy”, and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, to grab people's attention, it was the grief over the tragic death of his first wife that he credits with teaching him how to write a real song.

 

Like a chapter from a sad Lifetime movie, Berlin married his adorable twenty-year-old sweetheart took her to fashionable Havana for their honeymoon and five months later she died from typhoid fever she contracted on their week-long stay. 

 

Later he married socialite Ellin MacKay the daughter of the richest man in the United States, and wrote his classic, timeless love song, “Always”, about his pure joy at finding her. They were married for 62 years, and ironically her father disowned Ellin and Berlin for years for marrying a Jewish immigrant songwriter - until right after the stock market crash in which Mr. MacKay lost his entire fortune but Berlin wisely having purchased the publishing rights to ALL of his songs kept his finances relatively intact during the depression.

 

 

Everything went wrong,
And the whole day long
I'd feel so blue.
For the longest while
I'd forget to smile,
Then I met you.
Now that my blue days have passed,
Now that I've found you at last -

I'll be loving you always
With a love that's true always.

Days may not be fair always,
That's when I’ll be there always.
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
But always.

 

Berlin’s songs include, “Blue Skies”, (composed for his daughter), “Heat Wave”, “How Deep is the Ocean”, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, “Steppin’ Out with My Baby”, “What’ll I Do”, and the scores of “Annie Get Your Gun”, “Holiday Inn”, “Easter Parade,” and many more. We also learn that Berlin wrote “White Christmas” years after his son Irving Jr. was tragically found dead on Christmas morning at just three-weeks-old. In all, Irving Berlin composed 232 top-ten hits and 25 number one songs, and over 1500 published songs including one of his biggest hits, “God Bless America”.

 

I really loved the set which consisted of a lovely Christmas tree and piano with windows that opened onto a wonderful video presentation of the actual people, Berlin, his wives, etc as he tells a story about each. My only note for Felder is that he reconsiders having an intermission in any show he directs or stars in that is longer than 90 minutes as this one was. The audience was rapt the entire time but I felt the break in the middle would have allowed them to enjoy the show even more as a whole evening of entertainment with time to absorb and refresh between the two acts.

 

The artistic team for Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin is outstanding and led by Director Trevor HayScenic Design is by Hershey Felder and Trevor Hay, Sound Design is by Erik Carstensen, Lighting Design is by Richard Norwood and Video Design is by Andrew Wilder. The Scenic Decoration is by Meghan Maiya.

 

 

“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” is a rich and fully enjoyable experience that is playing at The Royal George theatre through December 6th. For more show information, visit www.theroyalgeorgetheatre.com

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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