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Close Encounters of Different Kinds:
Meeting on a First Date and meeting Irving Berlin

Here are two contrasting how-do-you-do scenes taking place in a single night, where memories and imagination take over. One is a new show about a date that recently visited Broadway and the other tells the tale of a visit with one of our most successful songwriters of Broadway: Mr. Irving Berlin.


Yellow Sound Label

Love may be blind, but blind dates aren't necessarily lovely. In First Date, it's boy-meets-girl, but will they meet again (and again) or are they a mismatch? Such is the plot. In an evening of stress and repeated pre-arranged fake S.O.S. calls from friends providing escape clauses, the causes of pessimism and fretting are trotted out in song. Consider the baggage unpacked. There are the scars and memories of past relationships, snap judgments of the negative kind (in First Date's "First Impressions," the guy is immediately perceived as "annoying" and he wonders if she's "hot" or not or if she's a tease). With percolating rhythms underlining many numbers, the score bounces and chugs along, as the pair (played with pluck by Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez) check each other out til "The Check!" comes at the restaurant and the question arises of who should pay. While mildly diverting at times, the characters in a CD listen rarely appear sympathetic or vulnerable or particularly interesting or endearing. We get that they're nervous and insecure under the veneer of smugness and affability, but, beyond that, there isn't much "there" there in their story. Accepted as a lighthearted, lightly-sketched comedy sketch, it has its cute moments and a flash of fun here or splash of spunk there.

"I'd Order Love," presenting a wish for love as if it could be an item on a menu, is rather sweet. But it's a little hard to swallow when the characters aren't otherwise presented as sentimental and open. A kind of sugar-coated mean-spiritedness sometimes pervades, passing for humor or edginess. Sexual desire and sexual frustration are in the air; Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, jointly crediting for writing the music and lyrics, may have the dubious distinction of the most references to testicles of any Broadway score. Other lyrics too often resort to TeenSpeak, with phrases like "... but it's so not" and considerable casual conversationally-used all-purpose four-letter words.

The energy of the cast does not lag, and it's not just the busily kicky arrangements. Levi and Rodriguez have good timing in their reactions and interactions, even while presenting two people who don't connect so well and are outwardly stumbling or self-editing. In bits of dialogue from Austin Winsberg's dialogue, they show skill as they query each other, try to put that best foot forward (but sometimes it's a case of putting a foot in one's mouth), making desperate small talk, while trying to figure out how or if to say goodnight. The five other singer-actors play multiple roles, with things often taking place in the lead characters' ever-active imaginations, they nimbly present quibbling kinfolk, meddling but well-meaning friends, ex-lovers casting their shadows, etc. Sara Chase stands out in her appearances as the young man's mother and grandmother (pulling out all the stops there, laying on the guilt needling him for considering the might-be relationship she can't approve of). The broad humor of this vision of a deceased older relative offering warnings may recall "Tevye's Dream" in Fiddler on the Roof, but its pastiche is amiable.

The surprise that his date is not Jewish, as assumed, cues a comical chorus of kvetching klezmer-style (("The Girl for You"), as the fellow imagines how his deceased disapproving grandmother would grouse and conceives of the confusion of his mixed-up, mixed-religion offspring who springs up in a fantasy, with a rueful rap. And he figures his potential father-in-law will figure he'll wind up in Hell since he won't celebrate Christmas and accept Jesus. All this is performed with energy and glee by the cast. Whether you laugh out loud, chuckle or groan will depend on your taste for this kind of ethnic humor and hetero-circular stereotype mindset of men and women being like oil and water.

With passive-aggressive chat and the second-guessing in First Date, some sentimental stuff is slathered on near the end. There's a number about parents' regrets ("The Things I Never Said") and the hemming and hawing and hesitations as the two end their evening at her doorstep, wondering if the meeting could turn into "Something That Will Last" as they reveal a heretofore rarely seen ability to be articulate and more hopeful. But it feels rather pat after all the tit-for-tat unspoken war of the sexes, pouty posturing and glum assumptions.

Fluff is as fluff goes and one can enjoy some zest and zingers here (the telling-her-off kiss-off in "In Love with You" is good in its good-riddance rant). And those looking for an energetic, frazzled-nerves kind of bounce and strut will find pleasures in the music and some catharsis. It's, at least, unpretentious, which is a blessing. Accepting the recording for what it is, with its overall glib determination to be a 20-something scenario about wanting dating to turn into something more than fruitless fishing expeditions, there are some compensations. Certainly with deftness in presenting the difficulty in men and women expressing their feelings, it's a million leagues from artful, sympathetic plunging into the depths of Julie and Billy singing in the classic bench scene in Carousel. And the mixed emotions of modern-day dating isn't captured as well as in pieces like Joshua Salzman and Ryan Cunningham's heartfelt and crackling work (I Love You Because; Next Thing You Know) or Rent's angst or Brian Gari's expressions of frustration in A Hard Time to Be Single, to name a few. But I can't say that the creators had much more in mind than a zippy look at the worries and wondering that might happen in early dating with those still relatively early in their dating lives, touching on some common traps and troubles an audience of equally date-frustrated folks might recognize.


Original Cast Records

His mind and voice flooded with memories, the great Irving Berlin tells the tale of his successful songwriting career on the night he will die at the ripe old age of 101. Billed as "a fantasy in two acts," Chip Deffaa's play Irving Berlin's America is stuffed with 27 Berlin songs. This is one of the five—count 'em, five!—pieces Deffaa has written about the tunesmith. In this one, he's visited by a mysterious young man who calls himself Jack, a kind but persistent and inquisitive type who asks him questions about his work, prompting reminiscences. If Jack presents himself as not knowing all the answers, he seem to know most of the lyrics and music and joins in. He also sings some solo, with pep and good spirits. Berlin wonders if Jack is a figment of his imagination, but there is no doubting the evidence that this revered songwriter, often hailed as the master of simplicity, created great works from his imagination. The parade of song, both famous and little-known, is as impressive as ever. It's sung and played with much heart and gusto, energetically with vaudeville savvy. The album is a blissfully bustling cornucopia of real entertainment and toe-tapping cheery charm. It makes me smile a lot.

The little band, a trio, is just right, with an authentic feel that never seems crusty or dusty. We get a couple of instrumental moments to solidify that impression. An expert in vintage material from the 1920s and '30s, Vince Giordano is on bass, Andy Stein adds immense atmosphere and period flavor with violin, and frequent Deffaa colleague Richard Danley is on piano and is musical director, but playwright/Berlin scholar Deffaa himself is the primary arranger. And he has done Mr. Berlin proud, I would say—the treatments are terrific and smart, economical and unfussy, like the songwriter's own trademark in his craft. P.S.: You'll hear some snazzy tap dancing sounds that add to the high spirits. I have so much fun listening to this album. Would it be selfish to wish there'd been more obscure songs? Well, then call me selfish, but I'm still a happy camper.

Snippets of dialogue set up some numbers—noting they were introduced by stars like Mae West, Fanny Brice and Al Jolson or written to be catchy dance novelty numbers and rags. On the rare more personal note, Berlin talks about his honeymoon in Havana (prompting the punnily titled "I'll See You in C-U-B-A") where his new bride caught a disease that would kill her, leading into the mournful "When I Lost You," in which he autobiographically pours out his grief. But nearly everything else is sunny side up. It's the early years represented, so don't look for any representatives from later scores (Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, Miss Liberty, Mr. President) or specialties like "White Christmas" or "Easter Parade" or even "God Bless America." Instead, we get a few nifty things going back to Berlin's earliest songwriting efforts when he wrote just lyrics and other old items, like a jubilant "The Circus Is Coming to Town" and "Blow Your Horn."

Some tracks are short and sweet; nothing is belabored or pushed in the "one more time" extra chorus hard sell. Some of the trademark/landmark moments are here: his first giant hit ("Alexander's Ragtime Band"), the sly complaint he himself sang in two all-soldier revues and on film ("Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning") and the grand "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." It's mostly casual in presentation, though lively—with a "parlor" atmosphere, taking place in the writer's home late at night.

Our two-man cast consists of Michael Townsend Wright as Berlin, with much of the old-school vaudeville charm he displayed playing the irrepressible show business-loving dad Eddie Foy on Chip Deffaa's cast album of The Seven Little Foys. Jack is played by the bright-voiced and bubbly Jack Saleeby, currently a college theatre major, who has worked on various projects by the playwright. The two have appealingly affectionate chemistry, especially when they sing in harmony and on counterpoint numbers. There's flair here, emphasizing enthusiasm and natural presentational singing over polish and purity. Wright captures some of the folksy, slightly mischievous quality heard in the handful of Berlin demo recordings extant and his occasional public appearances. But the actor has a richer voice than the tunesmith's thin, high tone—without being so "legit" sounding that he doesn't seem like the image of Irving.

Young Mr. Saleeby, with vim galore, has energy to burn. He dives into his selections with exuberance. He's particularly effective on the ebullient "I've Got My Captain Working for Me Now" and "I Want to Go Back to Michigan (Down on the Farm)." In some very brief moments, his joy takes precedence over what might be "prettier" or gentler/more careful singing technique essaying a high note, and occasionally some more variety in sound might have been prudent. But he's a real bundle of brash panache, his unbridled full embrace of this old material a pleasure to share. One suspects he's an old soul. Both actors have palpable satisfaction in presentations, with Wright really transmitting a sense of someone who know the songs like the back of his hand as someone who wrote it in his own hand and played it with his own hands on that piano he loved. And what's not to love here?

- Rob Lester

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