'Piano' Puts A Century Of Song And Dance On Grand Display

By Judith Cookis Rubens

Scanning Irving Berlin's popular song catalog is like taking a journey through the history and pop culture of America's 20th century.

The composer-lyricist, who lived to 101, produced relevant tunes from 1910 through the 1950s, filling the standards canon, not to mention Broadway shows and films.

"White Christmas," of course, was his, along with "God Bless America." But there's also "Puttin' on the Ritz," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and "There's No Business Like Show Business," among hundreds more.

Farmers Alley Theatre, in its latest musical revue, "I Love a Piano," makes Berlin's music come alive in a fresh, modern way, while still transporting us back to some of America's most promising and sorrowful days. It's a tall order, but director/choreographer Stephen Brotebeck's playful production keeps things moving with high-energy dancing, touches of humor, and just the right amount of schmaltz.

The revue, originally conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkley, follows an upright piano's journey, from its 1910 factory debut, through to the 1950s. Audiences watch it weave in and out of Americana, popping up in speakeasies during Prohibition, along Depression-era streets, to WWII canteens and, finally, a summer stock theater in the '50s.

It's a fairly flimsy conceit, but six top-notch performers breathe vibrant life into the material, forming three couples whose interactions express the times and emotions of the changing eras. Michael Ehlers, Lori Moore, Jay Rincon, Amy Prothro, Elliott Litherland and Mallory King are triple-threat performers who gamely move from ragtime and Charleston dances to polkas and toe-tappin' twists, not to mention all the changing vocal gymnastics.

Litherland and King (both WMU students) often pair up as younger hopefuls, Jim and Eileen, and bring the laughs with their comic take on "Let's Go Slummin.'" Rincon, as George, and Prothro, as Ginger, have great chemistry and harmonize well, not to mention their delightful dancing - "Cheek to Cheek," of course. Ehlers and Moore round out the cast as the more mature Alex and Sadie, who are just as light on their feet, adding boldness and heart, especially Moore, as she croons the war widow's lament, "Supper Time."

With a show so packed with memorable numbers, it's hard to note all the highlights. If pressed, the first-act medleys of "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Cheek to Cheek" and "Let's Face the Music" are up there, along with the wartime numbers, including "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," and "This is the Army." In the shorter second act, it's the showbiz tunes (worked into the behind-the-scenes of a theater doing "Annie Get Your Gun") - "Anything You Can Do" and "There's No Business Like Show Business" - that stick out charmingly.

Look for other ditties such as "Michigan (I Want to Go Back)" - a fun, local treat - and the title song, "I Love a Piano," done as a flashy, tap-heavy finale.

Marie McColley Kerstetter leads a stellar six-person band, hidden backstage, but, clearly, another star of this show.

W. Douglas Blickle's relatively simple set is a good fit for this cabaret staging (where patrons sit at tables, up-close-and-personal). The set also allows for moving screens to project black-and-white images of America, and its famous songwriter, through the years.

Donna McKenna's well-chosen costumes assist with the time travel, while Brotebeck's intricate choreography is spot-on and well-delivered.

Sometimes musical revues, which Farmers Alley favors around the holidays, can feel tedious, as though creators are just filling time by shoving in every last song, or oddly setting up out-of-place numbers. "I Love a Piano" is a delightful exception, where the songs seem to flow organically and sequences make sense.

It's been said that Irving Berlin didn't just create American music - he was American music. This joyful production all but proves that, giving audiences a chance to relive his hits in the context of their lifetimes.


'I Love a Piano'

Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. Thursday-Sunday through Jan. 5, 2014, plus Wednesday, Dec. 11 & 18; please note that several performances are already sold out. $33-35. 269-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com

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