By Marilyn Lester . . .
The singing and dancing jewel box of a revue, Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood, is just what the doctor ordered. There’s resonance in that phrase—we’re still living in the midst of a pandemic and its existential crises. In fact, Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood was supposed to debut in Spring of 2020, and we all know why it didn’t. How perfect, then, that this happy-go-lucky charmer has finally been mounted to bring us cheer. Coincidentally, its launch coincides with the sudden death of another songwriting titan, Stephen Sondheim. The revue thus reminds us, 32 years beyond Berlin’s death, that greatness most certainly lives on. In a career that spanned 60 years, he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs. He scored 15 original Hollywood films, receiving eight Academy Award nominations for Best Song.
Is it any wonder then, that director-choreographer, Randy Skinner, conceived Cheek to Cheek to celebrate Berlin’s genius? Wondrously, Barry Kleinbort’s book is a compact and pretty thorough history of Berlin in Hollywood, integrated seamlessly with the plenteous song and dance. This collaboration of Skinner with Kleinbort yielded a packed 85 minutes of beautifully paced numbers, without an ounce of fat. The center stage playing area, flanked by a superb five-piece jazz-style band upstage and simply placed side panels for projections (three on each side), was supported by smart lighting design, all leading to a really “swell” production. Bringing everything to life was a talented ensemble cast of Phillip Attmore, Jeremy Benton, Victoria Byrd, Kaitlyn Davidson, Joseph Medeiros and Melanie Moore.
The opening number, with projections and a recording of Al Jolson singing the 1927 hit “Blue Skies,” opened to introductory narrative. “Blue Skies” was the featured number in The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length talking picture (starring Jolson), and Berlin’s first full scoring for a film. From this terrifically staged first number, it was off and running through the ups and downs of Berlin’s life in Hollywood, with Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Carefree (1938), Second Fiddle (1939), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), Holiday Inn (1942), Blue Skies (1946) and Easter Parade (1948), among others, celebrated.
Stars who famously populated Berlin films—luminaries such as Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Judy Garland—were also represented. Many of Berlin’s Songbook standards were introduced by Astaire, including the eponymous “Cheek to Cheek,” written specifically for him in Top Hat. In fact, Berlin well understood the importance of dance in the cultural consciousness and wrote melodies and rhythms with dance in mind. Ensemble work on “Let Yourself Go” (Follow the Fleet), “The Yam” (Carefree) and “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” (White Christmas), among others, showcased the creativity and elegance of Skinner’s choreography—at once true to the style of the period while also bearing the mark of modernism. A highlight for tap aficionados was Benton and Attmore hoofing to “My Walking Stick” (Alexander’s Ragtime Band).
From time to time, humorous skits, with Medeiros as Berlin, dotted the revue landscape, imaginatively conveying aspects of Berlin’s character—in particular his skill as a shrewd businessman, an ability that RKO and rival studios became well aware of. Showcasing singing skills, solos were gorgeously rendered, including, by Byrd, a plaintive “Reaching for the Moon” (Reaching for the Moon), Moore’s hopeful “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” (Top Hat) and Davidson’s sensitive “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” (Holiday Inn). The band had its moment in the spotlight too. Music direction by David Hancock Turner also featured spirited updating to solid standards with Turner at the keys, Louis B. Crocco on drums/percussion, Joseph Wallace on double bass and reed players Noelle Rueschman and Amy Griffiths.
As if all of these singing and dancing riches were not enough, it was the finale of Cheek to Cheek that was absolute perfection. In those superb 85 minutes, the cares of our current state of affairs had melted away. Ready to face the outside world again, we were prepared with an exquisite rendition of the company’s heartfelt and skillfully harmonized “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Follow the Fleet). Perhaps there’s trouble ahead but, “…while there’s moonlight and music, And love and romance, Let’s face the music and dance.”
The simply elegant and simultaneously functional scenic design for Cheek to Cheek was created by the York Theatre’s Artistic Producing Director, the multi-talented James Morgan. A whirlwind parade of bright, swingy period fashion was the vision of costume designer Nicole Wee. Lighting design, which enhanced every moment of Cheek to Cheek, was by Jason Kantrowitz. Also contributing immeasurably to the successful production were Julian Evans (sound design), Rob Berman (dance arrangements) and Fred Lassen (vocal arrangements and orchestrations).
Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood plays through January 2, 2022. Tickets may be purchased by visiting OvationTix or by calling The York’s Box Office at 212-935-5820 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The York Theatre Company is located in The Theatre at St. Jean’s, 150 E. 76th St., New York, NY
Photos: Carol Rosegg