Thursday, September 13, 2012

3-D Theatricals Offers a Vivacious Production of I Love a Piano

Gail Bennett, James Blashaw, Adrianna Lyons, Cynthia Ferrer (seated),
Eddie Korbich and David Engel. Photos by Isaac James Creative

I Love A Piano, created by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, celebrates the extraordinary contribution of Irving Berlin to the Great American Songbook. It is estimated that over the course of Mr. Berlin’s 60-year career, he wrote more than a thousand songs, including scores for such classic musicals and films as Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, Top Hat, Easter Parade, and There's No Business Like Show Business. To say that he was prolific doesn’t even begin to do justice to the man about whom Jerome Kern once said, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music."

An effervescent, triple-threat cast headlines 3-D Theatricals' production at Plummer Auditorium. Gail Bennett, James Blashaw, David Engel, Cynthia Ferrer, Eddie Korbich, and Adrianna Rose Lyons create musical theatre magic to Berlin’s swingy tunes, arranged by Michael Berkeley and backed by Daniel Thomas and a top-notch orchestra.

The briskly paced song & dance revue follows the journey of an upright piano from the turn of the 20th century to the late 1950’s, bringing to life snapshots of the many lives its music touched along the way (which could just as easily be a metaphor for Berlin as well). It’s a thread of a story, to be sure, but enough to make this evening more than just a walk down memory lane. Each section – from Tin Pan Alley to The Great Depression to the Stage Door Canteen and Post World War II – is a winner. 

Adrianna Lyons, James Blashaw, David Engel, Eddie Korbach (seated), 
Gail Bennett, and Cynthia Ferrer

David Lamoureux directs charming vignettes within each of these periods. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the song that put Irving Berlin on the map, is the highlight of Tin Pan Alley in which the singers comically become their own orchestra. During the Prohibition era the hooch is stashed in the piano, which has now found a new home in a gin joint, and the cast goes wild.

Then it’s off to the theater for a glamorous 1930’s tribute to the movies featuring a medley of favorites that includes “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” and “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.” Here Engel and Bennett do their best Fred & Ginger impersonation while Blashaw & Lyons pull out all the stops on a terrific tap number. Korbich & Ferrer polish off the sequence with a delightfully laid back soft shoe. 

Vocally, the blend of this 6-member ensemble is a dream, with effortless phrasing on standards like “The Best Things Happen While You Dance,” “When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam,” and “White Christmas” that shows off Berkeley’s lush harmonies. They are equally proficient at comedy; their flair for a good joke obvious in the dynamite World War II sequence, and later, a junkyard homage to Judy Garland (Lyons) and Fred Astaire (Blashaw) produces a couple of swells who can’t wait to be part of the Easter Parade.

(Above) Cynthia Ferrar, with James Blashaw and Adrianna Lyons

The highlight of the second act is a Midwest Summer Stock audition sequence that finds the entire cast involved in a competition of one-upmanship that would do Howard Keel and Ethel Merman proud. Engel and Ferrar are a real treat in this battle as all three women vie to be cast as Engel’s leading lady.

A musical journey such as this requires an expert in the costume department and Aja Bell has exceeded all expectations with her brilliantly colored period creations. Chris Beyries' bandstand inspired set allows for unlimited versatility for Kami Seymour's choreography and Jean-Yves Tessier's lighting design is remarkable. The pictures he paints, both by defining the shapes and shadows of the background orchestra and contrasting them with the vivid movement of the actors in the foreground, is breathtaking. Andrew Nagy's video projections are also an impressive addition to the varying tones of the piece.

Irving Berlin once said that his ambition was to “reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country.” Watching I Love A Piano, one can't help but realize how fortunate we are that a composer cared that much about a country and a people he loved.

3-D Theatricals’ I Love A Piano, now through September 23 at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Avenue, Fullerton, CA 92832. September 28 - 30 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach, CA. Click Here for tickets to either location.

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