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Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - December 2, 2021

Joseph Medeiros, Victoria Byrd, Phillip Attmore,
Melanie Moore, Jeremy Benton, and Kaitlyn Davidson

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Well, what do you want from an Irving Berlin revue? Some familiar great old songs, to be sure. Maybe some less-familiar, less-great old songs. Some historical context in which to safely house those songs and explain when and why they were written. And a bunch of vocally and choreographically gifted young performers to sell them.. All of these things are in abundant supply in Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood, now gracing the York Theatre's temporary home in the basement of St. Jean's. (The theater is about the size and configuration of the old one, which is still recovering from a 2020 flood, and let this serve as a holiday reminder: The York needs money.) Exciting, innovative theater? Loaded with surprises? Not really. But pleasant? Pleasant dialed up to a "9".

Jim Morgan's set barely exists—how can it, with all those bodies whirling around—but he does provide panels for multiple projections. The first of these illustrate headlines from Variety and elsewhere announcing the onslaught of talking pictures and Al Jolson's triumph in The Jazz Singer, in which he sang Berlin's "Blue Skies" (they're fun, but I doubt they're authentic). They're soon shoved aside so we can meet Phillip Attmore, Jeremy Benton, Victoria Byrd, Kaitlyn Davidson, Joseph Medeiros, and Melanie Moore. Their names may not be familiar, but they can sing, tap like mad, and charm—and, assuming that their talents extend to soulful melismas and spitting out rap lyrics at Lin-Manuel speed, they should have profitable careers in the current theater. Here, only vocal and terpsichorean abilities of the most old-fashioned sort are required, and they have them. Corinne Munsch and Sean Quinn are the understudies, and I hope they get to go on at some point, because their heads must be too filled with lyrics and dance patterns to leave room for anything else.

They're backed by a real band: The five pieces, led by David Hancock Turner, sound, to use a Berlin-era adjective a fellow songwriter coined, swellegant. Fred Lassen did the vocal arrangements and orchestrations, while the dance arrangements are by a busy Rob Berman.

The director-choreographer is Randy Skinner (Irving Berlin's White Christmas, the Dames at Sea and 42nd Street revivals), so you can count on some intricate tap routines. These are most evident in "My Walking Stick," Berlin's amusing double-entendre ditty from Alexander's Ragtime Band, and especially "Drum Crazy," hoofed to a fare-thee-well by the three guys, in spectacular spectator wingtips. There's also plenty of ballroom stepping: Benton's and Moore's "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" is a reasonable facsimile of what Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen did in White Christmas, and while Benton and Davidson's "Cheek to Cheek" wouldn't cause Fred and Ginger any sleepless nights, it's pretty. All six have voices; the strongest is Davidson's, whose "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me" is within hailing distance of Rosemary Clooney's, complete with that wonderful key change near the end.

But you also want some Berlin you don't know, right? Check out the goofy "Back to Back," danced as titularly described by Medeiros, Byrd, and company. Or "Reaching for the Moon," one of those eloquent minor-key Berlin waltzes, written for an early movie musical and snipped out when oversaturation caused the genre to go out of fashion. Or, best of all, "I Used to Play It by Ear," mid-'60s Berlin, intended for Say It With Music, a long-aborning musical that got axed when James Aubrey took over MGM and canceled several promising projects. A real obscurity, and a darn good song.

And you want some backstage or back-studio stories, right? Bookwriter Barry Kleinbort provides a useful running commentary, including several acted-out scenes where, inaccurately but refreshingly, the women play the studio brass. There's at least one good, dirty anecdote I didn't know—about Joan Caulfield and Blue Skies—and a couple of assessments that could be considered debatable. To wit: Berlin wedded song to plot in a manner "unlike anything in screen musicals before," a notion that fans of early talkies by Ernst Lubitsch, Rene Clair, or Rouben Mamoulian might take exception to. And his strengths were "simplicity," along with "honest and unadorned lyrics." Well, yes, most of the time. But Berlin was also capable of lyrical complexity and song forms far beyond AABA. As early as 1914, in Watch Your Step, he was writing complicated opera parody. Face the Music ends with an extended song-scene that would have done Rodgers and Hart proud, and the five-minute opening to Louisiana Purchase is a small masterpiece of literate legal satire. He was musically dexterous, too: Cole Porter must have envied the major-minor fluidity of "Let's Face the Music and Dance," here the finale, and it's an oddly somber note to end on. And American Songbook historian Alec Wilder, analyzing "Moonshine Lullaby," was compelled to ask, "Where does this man find these tunes?"

Since the subtitle is Irving Berlin in Hollywood, you'll be denied his classic Broadway showtunes, and even some formidable movie songs are missing in action: no "A Couple of Swells," "Steppin' Out with My Baby," or "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails," and there's only a snippet of "White Christmas," but you're probably already hearing that one everywhere else.

Cheek to Cheek covers a lot of familiar ground, and there are times one fears for the metatarsals (and facial muscles; good Lord, do they smile a lot) of these fast-stepping, hard-working young people. But you know what? It's comfort food, a dish that suits both the holiday season and these difficult times. How welcome are 80 well-done minutes of Irving Berlin? How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?

Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood
Through January 2, 2022
York Theatre / St. Jean Baptiste Church, 150 E. 76th St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: