Review by Marilyn Lester


The overused terms “legendary” and “iconic” truly do belong to Irving Berlin. In a 60-plus-year career he wrote music and lyrics to around 1,500 songs, many of them, as Berlin’s contemporary Jerome Kern noted, becoming “indivisible from the country’s history and self-image.” In choosing gems from the Berlin songbook, producing director T. Oliver Reid wisely selected a mix of songs both well- and lesser-known.

Standing in for Reid as host (he had a professional conflict), Molly Pope brought her natural wit and funny-girl persona to the stage – her first duty to introduce a time- pressed Tony Yazbeck, on his way to “On the Town.” Yazbeck sang a mini-medley of “Change Partners” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” This sensitively crafted duo of songs opened with an eloquent bass accompaniment, gliding from a soft plea to a full-out, confident finish with piano and percussion in the mix.

Pope returned to the stage with a bit of light-hearted Berlin. Her “The Hostess with the Mostes’ On the Ball,” was introduced by Ethel Merman – and Pope, with a self-acknowledged big, brassy sound, is definitely “Mermanesque.” The jocular arrived with “You’re Just In Love,” the counterpoint song delivered by a free-spirited Willy Falk with the ever-reliable Raissa Katona Bennett. Bennett also sang “Be Careful it’s My Heart,” from 1942’s “Holiday Inn,” the musical that debuted “White Christmas.” Falk’s other turn of the evening was the curiously contemplative, yet celebratory number, “Blue Skies.” Looking like the cat who ate the canary, Falk’s soft prayer of gratitude morphed into an almost maniacal pitch of glee.

Aaron Ramey was on hand to sing “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam,” his big, open tenor showing why this 1912 ode to homecoming quickly became a jazz standard. With two singers named Marissa, and both reminiscent of the light, girlish style of Blossom Dearie, what else could be on offer but the duet, “Sisters.” Mulder and Miller were utterly charming as these cagey siblings. Channeling her inner Marilyn Monroe, Marissa Miller also sang “After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It,” while Marissa Mulder interpreted the classic, and yes, iconic, love song, “Always,” with sensitivity and gravitas.

Madeleine Doherty emotively sang another declaration of love “How Deep Is the Ocean,” while Jennifer Sheehan sang two songs about love unrealized. Her interpretation of “Reaching for the Moon,” was haunting and visceral, while “They Say It’s Wonderful,” was sung with a full-bodied expression of movement and voice – hopeful and expectant. The heartbreak of love was addressed by Janelle Robinson in the aching “Supper Time,” and by Maxine Linehan in the much-covered 1923 classic, “What’ll I Do.” Linehan sang it with intensity and perfect phrasing from deep within the lyric; by the time her beautifully rich voice hit the last note, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house – you could have heard a pin drop.

Early on in the evening, the band showcased its talent with Berlin’s first big hit, the 1911 ditty, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Music director and pianist Benet Braun, bassist Ritt Henn and drummer Daniel Glass played a period arrangement that proved the tune is still a classic toe-tapper. For the penultimate number, Molly Pope sang another Merman hit, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” a secular anthem to the world of entertainment.

Janelle Robinson closed out the show with the “second national anthem,” “God Bless America,” her classical voice rousing as she entreated the audience to join in. It was a fitting ending in tribute to the man who had a profound love for his country, and who left his imprint on it so indelibly.

54 Sings Irving Berlin – There’s No Business Like Show Business, July 8 at 7 and 9:30 pm

54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, 646-476-3551, www.54below.com