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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Always: The Love Story of Irving Berlin
Prince Music Theater

Also see Tim's review of Crime and Punishment and Nancy's review of The Pillowman

In Always: The Love Story of Irving Berlin, KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler provide a charming and inventive recap of the life and music of the man whose songs came to define a generation - several generations, in fact - of American pop. This is no mere songbook/hit parade show; the duo presents Berlin's hits (and occasional misses) in a format that traces his life through his music.

Smartly directed by Richard M. Parison, Jr., the show charts the ups and downs of Berlin's life, with just enough dramatic tension to keep things interesting over the course of a two-hour show. Sullivan and Nadler use Berlin's songs to illustrate the different stages of his life. So for Berlin's birth in Siberia, the duo performs "Russian Lullaby"; for his bachelor days, we get "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)"; for a tale of a marital spat, it's "Be Careful, It's My Heart."

The best portion of the show comes in act two, with a patriotic medley that is free of flag-waving schmaltz. Songs like "This Is the Army, Mr. Jones" and "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen" run the risk of being corny, but the duo balances them with the chilling "A Little Old Church in England," which starkly describes the horrors of the London Blitz. Yes, they perform "God Bless America," but they sing it over sound effects of exploding bombs, underlying the risks that Berlin undertook on his many tours performing for servicemen.

All of this is framed by the poignant story of Berlin's 62-year marriage to the aristocrat Ellin Mackay. The show concludes with a depiction of Berlin's last years that manages to be touching without being overly sentimental.

Nadler seems to be spinning like a top at all moments - which is quite an achievement considering he never leaves his piano bench. Often gesturing with his right hand while playing bass notes with his left, he is a great and versatile showman. (He also does a wicked impression of Berlin.) Sullivan seems almost sedate in comparison, but don't count her out - she gives a great comic spin to the sarcastic "I'm a Dumbbell" and turns "You'd Be Surprised" into a torchy tour de force.

Sullivan and Nadler continue their wonderful Berlin tribute through Sunday, October 29, then follow it up the next week with another show, A Swell Party: R.S.V.P. Cole Porter. They represent cabaret artistry at its best.

Always: The Love Story of Irving Berlin runs through Sunday, October 29, 2006, and A Swell Party: R.S.V.P. Cole Porter runs November 1-5. Ticket prices range from $40 to $55, and may be purchased by calling the Prince Music Theater box office at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at www.princemusictheater.org.

Always: The Love Story of Irving Berlin
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
All arrangements by Mark Nadler with the assistance of KT Sullivan
All dialogue by KT Sullivan with the assistance of Mark Nadler
Directed by Richard M. Parison, Jr.
Lighting Design Consultant... Troy A. Martin-O'Shia
Stage Manager... Paul Jerue
Sound Design Consultant... Nick Kourtides


-- Tim Dunleavy



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