Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of No Time for Sergeants
Delivered in a fairly chronological order, That Irving Berlin Thing features well scripted narration that give both details and insight as it tells the story of Berlin's rise from poor, immigrant Jew to world famous composer. Berlin was known as the man who wrote for the people. The show mentions that he didn't use the "dry, upper-crust sophistication of Noöl Coward or the fizzy, verbal acrobatics of Cole Porter," his two main contemporaries of the time, instead delivering less complex songs that, while they appeared to be simple, often took him a long time to write. Coris' script also includes mention of Berlin's self-doubt and his constant struggle to write another bestselling song. Berlin had his share of tragedy, including the death of his first child and first wife, as well as many high points, including finding enormous success on Broadway and in Hollywood. It is the show's focus on both his setbacks as well as his most cherished moments that are not only the most poignant parts, but also are most effective in how the songs the cast sings comment on and complement those events in Berlin's life.
With a song list forty strong there are too many highlights to mention. However, some of my favorites include the stunning harmonies of the cast on the two back-to-back patriotic numbers "God Bless America" and "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor" from Miss Liberty, as well as the fun, upbeat tap choreography from David Hock that the cast energetically delivered on several songs. Act two also features a superb medley of Hollywood tunes and highlights from two of Berlin's biggest Broadway shows, Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam, which features a unique mash-up of the two duet songs from those shows, "Old Fashioned Wedding" and "It's a Lovely Day Today." Music director Curtis Moeller's arrangements and leadership of the excellent five piece band were also major highlights of the evening.
Performing everything from ballads to comic numbers, Coris' cast featured six superb vocalists who had no problem delivering what was required for the wide range of material. Lauren Koeritzer's warm voice hit some beautiful notes on several of Berlin's biggest ballads, including "How Deep Is the Ocean?" and "I Got Lost in His Arms" from Annie Get Your Gun. Michael Schauble sang a rousing "Top Hat," which was part of the Hollywood section that let him also show off his sleek dance skills. The first act ended with a superb version of "Shaking the Blues Away" which featured Melissa Kamel's strong pipes. Bill Diekmann provided the narration throughout, with a warm and assured delivery. He also sang one song, a quite moving take on "What'll I Do?" which was paired with a lovely version of "Always" by Karylin Veres. Veres also got to sing "Blue Skies"; however, it was a somewhat truncated version of the song which I wish had been longer due to her expert delivery.
Coris' warm voice and comic abilities added professional touches to several dramatic moments, including a moving version of the upbeat song associated with Al Jolson, "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," as well as the comical tune "I'm the Guy Who Guards the Harem."
Coris' direction included effective use of gestures and body movement from all of the cast members that highlighted the lyrics, and he used the various areas of his multi-level stage quite well. However, there were a few things that didn't quite work. Coris often staged the ballads by having his castmates stand firmly in one place. While this was a nice counterpoint to the varied movement in the other numbers in the show, several times the ballads were sung on the furthest upstage platform which meant the performer was also somewhat obscured behind the onstage band, and there was a large space between the singer and the audience. Having the singer come downstage to sing these emotional numbers would have provided a more intimate connection between performer and audience. Also, having the narration all delivered by one person gave a weird disconnect between the vocalists and the narration. It also meant there were small pauses after a song ended and before Diekmann found his way to his podium to begin the next piece of narration. Occasionally, when one of the performers would enter the stage a few seconds before Diekmann finished his narrative, they were left standing there with nothing to do as they waited to sing their next song. If the entire cast could have been better incorporated into the narration, possibly having them read the narration that became before the song they were about to sing, it would have helped to resolve some of these few hiccups.
It's clear that Hector Coris has a love for and is very knowledgeable of Irving Berlin's body of work and his life. Berlin was an incredibly gifted composer with a rich life story and, even with my few small quibbles, That Irving Berlin Thing at Scottsdale Musical Theater Company was a moving tribute to this iconic man.
The Scottsdale Musical Theater Company's production of That Irving Berlin Thing ran through April 21st, 2017, with performances at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway. You can get information and ticket information on their upcoming productions by visiting www.scottsdalemusicaltheater.com. Tickets can also be ordered by calling 602-909-4215.
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin