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Irving Berlin's America
In the words of Jerome Kern, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music." Berlin (1888-1989) himself was an American story, born in Russia as Israel Beilin, to a family of ten who fled a pogrom and emigrated to the East Side in New York when he was five.
Struggling in poverty, Israel absorbed a love of music from his father, Moses, once a cantor and now reduced to painting tenements. Moses died when Israel was barely a teenager, quitting school and becoming a street and saloon singer. He parodied hit songs and grasped the dialects and lingo around him. He could not read or write music but had a sharp eye and a musical ear and in 1911, he published his first hit song "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Now called Irving Berlin, he composed more than 1,500 songs in his 80-year career, becoming the most popular and highest-paid songwriter in the world. George Gershwin called him, "the greatest songwriter who ever lived."
Kudos to Chip Deffaa, an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award-winning author and playwright, judiciously dedicated to collecting and keeping alive early American popular music and songwriters (George M. Cohan, Fanny Brice, Johnny Mercer, Eddie Foy and now Irving Berlin). Deffaa's Irving Berlin's America is the first production about Berlin's life, a 90-minute, two-man rags-to-rich journey of Berlin's early life and work. Currently at the 13th Street Repertory Theater, it is one of Deffaa's five shows about Berlin, each tailored for different audiences and venues.
Deffaa captures the excitement of the era and casts performers showing versatility and showmanship. Starring here are Michael Townsend Wright (the film, The Rat Pack ) playing the elderly Berlin and, as a young admirer, Giuseppe Bausilio ( Newsies, Billy Elliott ).
The play opens as the young fan meets Berlin, and asks to talk to him. Berlin was a reclusive but he agrees to share some memories and sing a few tunes. We him come to appreciate the value of his life. Yet, questions remain. Who is this young man and why does Berlin let him enter his home, a sanctuary for the past 20 years? What is the significance of September 22, 1989, the night Berlin died at age 101? Why references to his recurring visions of "the Angel of Death?"
Under Deffaa's crisp pace, the 26 songs reveal the songwriter's life of the songwirter who said "My whole life is in my songs." One of the most touching memories addresses Berlin's first wife, Dorothy. Tragically, on their honeymoon to Cuba in 1912, Dorothy contacted typhoid fever and died. Depressed, Berlin wrote the ballad, "When I Lost You," expressing his thumbprint of truth and simplicity.
Wright plays Berlin with restraint, slightly bent, and convincingly frail as the old man, a bit crotchety but with flashes of humor. He admits lifelong insecurity and a wish to be a showman like his idols, George M. Cohan and Al Jolson. With a slightly faint voice, Wright is touching in his rendition of "When I Lost You," and shines with expressiveness in the humorous, "Sadie Salome (Go Home)."
The charming young Bausilio, is an exuberant Swiss-born singer and dancer, upbeat with his eagerness to shine a light on the songwriter's genius. Choreographers Scott Thompson and Tyler Duboys give him a chance to strut his stuff on the limited stage space to Cohan's "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Bausilio is impressively nuanced in his vocal solo of "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody."
Music Director Richard Danley accompanies on piano. He provides a robust vaudeville sound with glimmers of Berlin's musical influences, ragtime, counter melodies and the bluesy feel of "Home Again Blues." On the spare living room stage set, a second piano is a stand-in for Berlin's transposing keyboard, since he only played in one key.
As composer Victor Herbert advised him, "You have a natural gift for words and music. Learning theory might cramp your style. Simplicity and truth, that was Irving Berlin's style.