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92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Irving Berlin: American”

A biographical survey concert to mark “God Bless America’s” centennial. There was sensational tap dancing, wonderful singing and lesser played songs.

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Richard Riaz Yoder, Holly Butler and Danny Gardner as they appeared in 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Irving Berlin: American” (March 24 – 26, 2018) (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

“Steppin’ Out with My Baby” sung and danced Bob Fosse-style, with finger snapping and sensual movements by cast members dressed in black and gray casual wear was the exuberant second act opening number of the 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series’ Irving Berlin: American. Later on, there was a beautifully airy take on “Cheek to Cheek.” “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” was a breezy spectacular with cast members in formal wear twirling canes.

This biographical survey concert fused together several strands. There were the zesty performances by Danny Gardner, Emily Hsu, Holly Butler, Richard Riaz Yoder, Jada Temple and Bryonha Marie.

There was also the narrative device of having Irving Berlin appear as a commentator. This was achieved by the marvelous performance of Stephen DeRosa who channeled Berlin’s presence with his rat-a-tat show business cadences and comic timing. Mr. DeRosa also conveyed Berlin’s melancholy and sang and danced through the presentation with joyous flair. His “This is A Great Country” was quite stirring and his “Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars” was priceless.

Mr. Gardner’s supreme tap dancing, boyish and sunny persona were delightfully evident for “Everything in America Is Ragtime,” “Maybe it’s Because I Love You Too Much” and in the group numbers.

Ms. Hsu came close to stealing the show with her hilarious rendition of “You’d Be Surprised” that slyly emphasized the song’s suggestive naughtiness. Hsu also did a lovely “They Say It’s Wonderful.”

Danny Gardner, Holly Butler, Stephen DeRosa, Emily Hsu and Richard Riaz Yoder as they appeared in 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Irving Berlin: American” (March 24 – 26, 2018) (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

“Suppertime” and “Blue Skies” received majestic renditions by Ms. Marie. Mr. Yoder sparkled with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Remember” and during his duet with Ms. Butler of “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain).” Butler’s “What’ll I Do” was intensely wistful.

The opening segment featured a number of relatively lesser known works from before and after the landmark “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911. These included “Marching Along with Time,” “Oh, How That German Could Love,” “When You Kiss an Italian Girl,” “Ephraham Played the Piano,” “Spanish Love” and “Mandy.”

Noah Racey’s energetic direction and choreography infused the production with verve and momentum. Mr. Racey’s script co-written with Cheryl L. Davis was problematic.

“Be simple. Make your point and get out,” was Berlin’s credo and advice to aspiring songwriters. Ms. Davis and Racey appeared to have not followed this wisdom. Their conceit was to have Berlin in old age, long retired and having taken up painting, visited by a young, female songwriter. Ms. Temple was appealing and emphatic as the novice and richly performed “How Deep Is the Ocean.”

They engage in discussions about his life and the craft of songwriting with her interviewing him at times. Corniness abounds as the dialogue is often in the old-time Hollywood mode of, “And then I wrote…” These exchanges were interspersed throughout.

Stephen DeRosa and Jada Temple as they appeared in 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “Irving Berlin: American” (March 24 – 26, 2018) (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

Most awkward was the portion where the young woman rummages through his trunk of drafts of songs and discovers an early version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” that had insensitive lyrics about African-Americans.  She is appalled and grills him on it as this contrasts with his notable acts in support of civil rights. It was a leaden and relatively lengthy tangent that sidetracked the pacing for little effect.

Music director Dan Garmon led the accomplished band that had Justin Smith on violin, John De Simini on reeds, Chris Agar on bass and Dan Weiner on drums. Their efforts terrifically rendered the many familiar melodies with a fresh and jazzy take due to Mr. Garmon, Aaron Gandy and Ross Patterson’s arrangements.

Chelsie McPhilimy’s creative projection design consisted of evocative historical and abstract images that perfectly complemented the production.

2018 marks the centennial of “God Bless America” and that occasion was the inspiration for this overall splendid concert. That perennial was the glorious finale as the cast performed it with the audience standing and singing along.

92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists Series: Irving Berlin: American (March 24 – March 26, 2018)

92nd Street Y

Kaufmann Concert Hall, 1395 Lexington Avenue, at 92nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-415-5500 or visit http://www.92y.org

Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (514 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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