The Melody Lingers On
Also see Sharon's review of Palm Beach
The true irony associated with The Melody Lingers On is that it began as a cabaret to introduce high school students to the work of Irving Berlin. And what is ironic about that is that the show, in its current incarnation, is in no way directed toward an audience unfamiliar with Berlin. If it were, the show would simply be comprised of talented individuals performing the best possible renditions of Berlin's music that they could. But it isn't. When Fiama Fricano sings "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," she isn't trying to do the best damn "You Can't Get A Man With A Gun" that she can. Instead, she's momentarily taking on the role of Ethel Merman, and giving us her best shot at recreating Merman's style - something that would be wholly lost on new audiences. And the show certainly doesn't have Kathryn Crosby sing a verse of "White Christmas" because she's particularly good at it. It has her sing "White Christmas" because she's Kathryn Crosby - and if you don't get why that's significant and maybe even get a little misty-eyed at the idea, then you have no business going to the El Portal and seeing this show - you simply are not in its target audience.
Even if you are in this show's target audience, and ready for a stroll down the memory lane of Irving Berlin tunes, there are still some elements you're going to have to forgive. You'll have to forgive the concept of its narration, in which Kathryn Crosby appears not simply as a host escorting us on our journey, but, somewhat awkwardly, as Berlin's daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett. (Crosby's dialogue is taken from Barrett's book about Berlin.) You'll have to forgive the biographical plot itself, which - despite being fairly skeletal - manages to be extremely confusing because it begins with a flashback within a flashback before it really establishes the rules by which it is playing. You'll have to forgive a script which doesn't always clearly distinguish between the castmembers playing characters or simply performing production numbers from Berlin's catalog. You'll have to forgive some of the costumes, which (despite appearing quite extravagant) sometimes get in the way of their wearers' movements, and, on occasion, are simply unflattering.
All of that, though, is easy to forgive. We all know we're here to see and hear this cast of eleven dance and sing their hearts out to great Irving Berlin melodies. Upon walking into The Melody Lingers On, I heard several audience members say, "Well, at least we know the score will be good." And it is. And when the show is comprised of over 40 such tunes, it's easy to overlook any flaws in their packaging. It's hard to really go wrong with this material.
What is somewhat disappointing, though, is that it doesn't go as right as it could. The structure of The Melody Lingers On is almost intentionally geared against building momentum. Any time there's a knockout number (and there are several), it is quickly followed by a bit of sad narration, or an intentionally slow introduction to the next tune. Even the first act curtain, "Shaking the Blues Away," is on its way to leaving the audience tapping its toes when it is interrupted by some extremely depressing narration. Truly, there were sad times in Berlin's life, and a biographical show shouldn't overlook them. But, out of all of these numbers, the show could build showstopper upon showstopper and really leave the audience in an ecstasy of song and dance, rather than repeatedly killing our buzz.
In the second act, thanks to a sequence of numbers covering the Fred Astaire years, the show gets dangerously close to providing this kind of joy - it probably would, were it not broken up with a melancholy, danceless, "Let's Face the Music and Dance." David Engel is nominally playing Astaire, and he leads the company in some delightful tap routines. But Engel's show stealing moment isn't when he's tapping - it's in the first act, when he sings "Change Partners." Engel manages something few others achieve in this show: he interprets the song. Engel isn't just singing an Irving Berlin song; he's feeling the emotions associated with it, and the audience does too.
Some other performers have opportunities to interpret these songs, but fail to take advantage of them. Todd Murray, as Irving Berlin, has an informal lounge style to his singing. He always seems to be delivering the song directly to the audience, and is frequently smiling when he's singing. Although Murray is playing the part of Berlin in this biography, I don't feel I've learned anything of Berlin's style or persona from watching Murray - he has merely sung Berlin tunes that have been organized to complement the narration of Berlin's life story.
It is difficult to single out any other performers. The show's program frustratingly does not identify the singers who perform any particular number. But, more than that, the singers are often not given the opportunity to just sing a song solo from top to bottom. In a song like "Heat Wave," or "The Girl That I Marry," an individual performer begins the number - and that beginning nearly always shows some style - and then a few other cast members join in and the unique flair disappears in the precisely delivered harmonies. The sound is beautiful, but you can't help but feel a twinge of loss for the possible knockout performance you would have gotten had the individual been allowed to complete the song. It's the musical equivalent of filming actresses through a screen - the result is indisputably lovelier, but at the cost of immediacy and intimacy. The voices of this ensemble blend beautifully, but every now and then, you wish the show would risk the somewhat harsher edges of an individual voice.
It is certainly a fine thing to create a show that is all about triggering memories of Irving Berlin tunes and the great performers who are associated with them. But, just because the show might be geared toward older audiences doesn't mean it always has to take the safest route. Any show comprised of 40 Irving Berlin tunes competently sung and sharply danced is bound to entertain, and The Melody Lingers On does just that. But if it took more risks, it might get a better payoff.
The Melody Linger On continues at the El Portal in North Hollywood through July 10. For tickets and information see www.elportaltheatre.com.
Tripp Hornick in association with Edward Sayegh present The Melody Lingers On: The Songs of Irving Berlin. Dialogue taken from the book Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir by Mary Ellin Barrett; Script Continuity by Tom Briggs. Orchestrations and Vocal Arrangements by Donald Johnston; Conceived by Karin Baker. Scenic Design Matt Scarpino; Original Costume Design Sharell L. Martin; Lighting Design R. Kent Sheranian; Sound Design Brian Mohr. Production Supervisor Kevin Traxler; Press Representative Forrest & Associates; Production Stage Manager Steven R. Donner. Associate Producers AMTW Inc. & Blind Monkey Productions LLC; Executive Producer and General Manager Tripp Hornick; Music Direction by Colin Freeman; Production Musical Supervisor Edward Sayegh; Direction and Choreography by Jamie Rocco.
Cast: Kathryn Crosby; Todd Murray; Melina Marie Kalomas; Christina Saffran Ashford; Fiama Fricano; Kristi Holden; Steve Kirwan; Aimee Mauzey; Craig A. Meyer; Calvin Perry; and David Engel.