By Joel Benjamin
Fred Barton, the bubbly, knowledgeable music director and arranger, hosted another program in the Schimmel Center’s American Showstopper series, An Evening of Irving Berlin on March 6th. His robust 14-piece orchestra accompanied ten fine Broadway singers, backed by a snazzy chorus line, all directed and choreographed by Jason Wise. The generous program of 24 numbers included the best known Berlin songs and a few relative rarities, all introduced by Mr. Barton whose anecdotes raised the level of the evening from mere entertainment to great entertainment.
Tall, lanky Jesse Luttrell strutted his stuff singing “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” one of the best known songs, and Berlin’s first big hit. Some of the other hits were: “I Love a Piano” done to a fare-the-well by musical comedy star Lee Roy Reams; “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” the Al Jolson chestnut, given a new, modern sheen by the glorious Karen Ziemba; “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” interpreted with leading man gravitas by Brent Barrett; Lee Roy Reams, again, in a combination of “Remember” and “Always” communicating their sadness without wallowing; the earthy diva Natasha Williams getting to the torchy heart of “How Deep Is the Ocean”; and Mr. Barrett’s smooth, sexy “Blue Skies.”
There was a batch of what Barton called Berlin’s “counterpoint songs,” the ones where two songs fit magically together. The most famous is, if course, “You’re Just In Love” sweetly sung by Ms. Ziemba and newcomer Bruce Landry, a cutie-pie with a great voice. “Old-Fashioned Wedding” had an “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” competitive quality as performed by Ms. Ziemba and Mr. Barrett while “Play a Simple Melody” was jauntily sung by those two plus Mr. Reams.
The lesser known ditties included “Slumming on Park Avenue” which Ms. Williams sang with a winking wit and the very funny “Secret Service” from Mr. President, Berlin’s last musical, in which the president’s daughter reveals her frustration with those “White House Dicks.” Young and lithe Hannah DeFlumeri had just the right, wide-eyed sweetness to put across some of the hilariously suggestive lyrics.
Tall, debonair Damon Kirsche’s “What Chance Have I Got With Love?” had a crooning grace while the elegant David Elder, backed by the four chorines, tapped delightfully to “Stepping Out with My Baby.” Karen Murphy showed her comic chops in the sardonic “Falling Out of Love” and her darker, torchy side in “What’ll I Do,” that heartbreaking lament.
The evening ended with a rousing “God Bless America” which has become a de facto second national anthem, here refreshingly performed without an audience sing-along.
Although Jason Wise might have created more original and fresh choreography, this evening was a great success and augurs well for the future of this series.
American Showstoppers: An Evening of Irving Berlin
Schimmel Center at Pace University
3 Spruce St. (between Park Row and Gold St.)
New York, NY
Tickets and Information: 866-811-4111 (OvationTix) or 212-346-1715 or www.schimmel.pace.edu