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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano

Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano
Cast of I Love a Piano
The big question about Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano, now being presented by Arena Stage at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Washington, is what this synthetic, superficial musical revue is doing at one of the nation's leading regional theaters. The production, while occasionally ingratiating, trivializes the very real genius of Berlin (no relation) and the contributions he made to the American songbook during his 101-year life.

Ray Roderick, who also directed and choreographed, and Michael Berkeley cobbled together the production from the Berlin catalog, but the very young six-member cast give performances closer to those found in a theme-park production than in a professional theater. The authors tried to create a framing device—the history of a battered upright piano, from its first owner in 1910 to the more-or-less present—but the scenes have little continuity and the actors change character from one sequence to the next, with a few jaw-dropping non sequiturs.

The script strings together several Berlin songs in medleys to convey the different eras of the 20th century: New York's Tin Pan Alley before and during World War I, a Roaring Twenties speakeasy, a 1930s movie theater, World War II on the homefront and the battlefield. However, the lack of context for the performances means that the songs come across as shallow and the performers can't make strong positive impressions. (One extended sequence, presented as auditions for a summer-stock production of Annie Get Your Gun, degenerates into a cat fight among three women as they suck up to the leading man and the director.)

More to the point, the familiar songs are identified with such Broadway and Hollywood icons as Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby—a hard act to follow for the best of singers.

The most egregious moment comes with the misplacement of a truly historic Berlin song, "Suppertime," from the 1933 revue As Thousands Cheer. In the midst of a lighthearted topical show, Berlin had the nerve to give the great African-American singer Ethel Waters a solo as the widow of a lynching victim, worrying how she will tell her children about their father's death. The creators of the current show give the song to a war widow, but it has no meaning in this setting: the wife of a dead soldier would not feel the shame and denial of a woman coping with bigotry and senseless violence.

Arena Stage
Irving Berlin's I Love a Piano January 29th February 15th
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Conceived by Ray Roderick & Michael Berkeley
Jim: Ryan Lammer
Sadie: Emily Mattheson
Ginger: Alix Paige
Eileen: Ashley Peacock
George: Michael Turay
Alex, Assistant Director: Jason Weitkamp
Swings: Tom Bruett, Talia Corren
Direction and choreography by Ray Roderick
Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. N.W.
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or www.arenastage.org


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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