by Clark Groome
A disappointing use of great songs and a strong production of one of Neil Simon’s autobiographical plays made up a mixed week of theater. Here’s the rundown:
“I Love a Piano”
When you talk about what has come to be known as “The Great American Songbook,” nobody plays a larger part in it than Irving Berlin. He’s got great company with Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein and so forth, but it’s Berlin who’s at its core.
Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley have taken 56 of the 1000-plus Berlin songs and included them, or in too many cases, snippets of them in “I Love a Piano,” the revue that’s ending the current Walnut Street Independence on 3 season, where it’ll be through June 26.
As great as the music is, the Walnut’s version looked under-rehearsed and over-directed on opening night.
Director/choreographer/performer Ellie Mooney has created an over-caffeinated production that while trying to put the songs into some historical context generally pays less attention to the music and its performance than it does to the stage business, most of which is unnecessary and distracting.
The four performers — Mooney and Scott Langdon, Owen Pelesh and Denise Whelan — are so busy doing stuff that their singing, while on occasion quite good, is, for the most part, unimpressive, especially in those instances where they are supposed to be singing in harmony. Their ensemble singing is often off-key, as are some of their solo turns.
The show does include, among others, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Blue Skies,” “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” “There’s no Business Like Show Business” and “God Bless America.”
It’s always good to reconnect with these great songs. It’s just too bad that they were so awkwardly and unimpressively performed in this promising but ultimately disappointing musical.
Irving Berlin deserved better.
For tickets, call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org
“Biloxi Blues” is the second, and I’ve always thought weakest, entry in Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy that began with “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and concluded with the magnificent “Broadway Bound.”
“Biloxi” takes the Neil Simon surrogate, Eugene Morris Jerome, from the time he left for boot camp in Biloxi, Miss., in 1943 until he returns from World War II two years later.
Eugene’s goals as he sets out are to become a writer, lose his virginity and survive. He does all three, and falls in love in the bargain. It is a very funny play at times and at others quite moving. It boats a lot of typical Simonesque humor while revealing that the relationships he has with his fellow soldiers are often very complex.
In its first foray into Simon’s work, People’s Light and Theatre has mounted a very strong production that will be on the boards in Malvern through May 24.
James Michael Lambert is Eugene, a role originally created by Matthew Broderick. Lambert is very good, as are Jordan Geiger as the complicated and engaging Arnold Epstein and Pete Pryor as the tough-as-nails drill sergeant Merwin J. Toomey. Luke Brahdt, Ben Harter-Murphy, Jon Mulhearn and Joseph Michael O’Brien are fine as the other recruits. Julianna Zinkel and Clare Mahoney do good work as the pro with whom he loses his virginity and the smart and gentle girl with whom he falls in love.
Samantha Bellomo’s production was ably abetted by James F. Pyne Jr.’s set, Marla J, Jurglanis’ costumes, Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting and Michael Kiley’s sound.
People’s Light’s “Biloxi Blues” brings out more of the play’s richness than any previous version I’ve seen, and that includes the original Broadway production.
For tickets call 610-644-3500 or visit www.peopleslight.org.