The British born Peterson has had an illustrious musical theater career on the stages of his native country and in the United States. He recently concluded a run in a touring company of Cabaret as the Emcee. He portrayed George M. Cohan in an award-winning solo show and most memorably played Anthony Newley in another solo show, He Wrote Good Songs.
Wiry, compact, and possessed of a magnetic presence, the animated Peterson’s performance is a joy to experience. He also choreographed his captivating dance numbers.
Mr. Deffaa’s straightforward script is an inspired take on the hallowed “…and then I wrote…” scenario. The conceit is that Berlin who couldn’t read music and could only play the black keys of a piano, is in his 90’s and is dictating his reminiscences to his long-time secretary at his New York City townhouse.
Deffaa’s great achievement is joining the narrative portions with just the right song. An anecdote about encountering Florenz Ziegfeld having an office dalliance with a chorus girl is followed by “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” “I Love a Piano” is preceded by Berlin’s extolling of his beloved piano nicknamed “Buick. ”
Over 30 compositions are skillfully woven into the presentation. Many of the famous ones are just referred to in favor of performances of lesser known songs, but “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in The Morning,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Say It With Music” are prominently featured.
There’s a wonderful portion where Berlin offers incisive portraits of the show business giants he worked with. Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman and Marilyn Monroe are all lovingly recounted.
Born in Russia in 1888, Berlin’s Jewish family fled the pogroms when he was five years old and settled in the United States. His poverty-stricken New York City childhood with his singing on the streets that led to becoming a singing newsboy and a singing waiter in a gritty nightclub and then emerging as a successful songwriter are poignantly detailed. His tragic first marriage and second, happy marriage to a socialite who went against her captain of industry father’s wishes are recalled, along with sad events.
An addiction to prescription medications in old age caused a scandal as Berlin’s career faded in the late 1950’s, due to the emergence of Rock and Roll. He was plagued by depression and insomnia and the show delves into all of these conditions. His Republicanism, combating anti-Semitism, and championing of civil rights are gracefully covered. He died in 1989 at the age of 101.
Musical director Richard Danley authoritatively plays piano and injects momentum into the production with his supreme musicianship. Kate Solomon-Tilley’s dramatic lighting design perfectly complements the presentation with spotlights, dimness and crisp brightness. Peterson’s vintage looking clothes appropriately conveys the look of Berlin.
Billed as “a work in progress,” the show could stand some adjustments. These would include a bit more snap to Deffaa’s solid direction. The minimal scenic design could be further reduced. The small stage is cluttered with curtains, screens, stools and other accessories that don’t add much visual interest. Blocks and a suitcase are well utilized. An uneasy prologue has Peterson introducing himself as the actor Jon Peterson and explaining that he won’t be doing an impersonation of Berlin, but he actually channels his essence. A more direct, in-character opening would be ideal and so would tightening some of the expository passages.
At present Irving Berlin: In Person contains Jon Peterson’s dazzling performance in fascinating material that has been effectively and affectionately rendered.
Irving Berlin: In Person (Mondays, December 4 – 18, 2017, January dates TBA)
13th Street Repertory Company, 50 West 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit http://www.13thstreetrep.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission