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THEATER REVIEW

Not quite the last word on Irving Berlin

The singing and the music are splendid in this 'Melody,' which, unfortunately, is biography-lite.

June 27, 2005|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

What can you say about an American genius who had a career spanning more than eight decades before dying in his sleep at the age of 101?

At first glance, the life of Irving Berlin, the legendary songsmith whose prolific output included the beloved "White Christmas" and "God Bless America," seems to lack the necessary oomph for stage treatment. Dig a little deeper into the Berlin century, however, and you'll find plenty of dramatic fodder: Berlin's first wife contracted typhoid on their honeymoon and died, and he fought for acceptance from his second wife's wealthy family, who viewed him as socially unacceptable; he was temporarily beggared in the 1929 crash; his firstborn son perished in infancy.

Certainly, Berlin's biography presents the raw material for a bang-up musical. The problem with "The Melody Lingers On," at the El Portal, is that it is a musical revue masquerading as a musical. The music itself -- a sampling of dozens of songs from Berlin's vast oeuvre -- remains rapturously engaging. But the biographical material is disappointingly prosaic.

The piece was first work-shopped a decade ago in a New York City high school and has been produced frequently since then. However, the El Portal production is being ballyhooed as the first definitive production in a "major American city."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 29, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Irving Berlin musical -- A review in Monday's Calendar of "The Melody Lingers On" at the El Portal Theatre misspelled the name of Irving Berlin's wife, Ellin, as Ellen.

Despite a crack cast and lavish production values, "Linger" never outstrips a certain high-school-ish ambience. Check the program closely. Berlin's daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, gets credit for dialogue taken from her memoir, Tom Briggs for "script continuity." There's even a "conceived by" credit, for Karin Baker. But there's no credit for a book writer, and the book -- or the lack thereof -- is the greatest problem of this would-be musical.

Tripp Hornick appeared in that long-ago high school production and is the driving force behind this L.A. premiere, co-produced by Hornick and production musical supervisor Edward Sayegh. The El Portal outing is lavishly professional, particularly Sharell L. Martin's glitzy period ensembles. Working from Donald Johnston's vocal arrangements and orchestrations, director-choreographer Jamie Rocco and music director Colin Freeman preside over an impressive ensemble.

Musically speaking, the results are tremendous, a treat for the ear. But when the dialogue commences, it's quite a different story. Kathryn Crosby, Bing's trim and poised widow, takes on the role of Barrett, wandering through the action at intervals to quote passages from Barrett's book and warble a tune or two, including a sweet introduction to "White Christmas" that brings a tear to her eye -- and ours. Although Crosby acquits herself credibly, her star turn seems cobbled into the action more for marquee value than as an indispensable part of the narrative.

Also problematic is Todd Murray's miscasting as Berlin. A prepossessing performer with a beautiful baritone, Murray is tall, blond and Midwestern-looking -- a far cry from the scrappy, diminutive boychik from New York's lower East Side. Murray and Melina Marie Kalomas, who plays Berlin's second wife, Ellen, complement each other vocally but seem oddly stiff in their roles, never finding the romantic chemistry that would have made them fully engaging.

On the plus side -- and it's a big plus -- the actors, including Murray and Kalomas, are consummate pros who all have their innings in Rocco's nicely calibrated staging. Among the talented cast, triple threat David Engel taps and vocalizes with his usual standout flair, and Fiama Fricano plays Ethel Merman with great stage presence and a blissful belt voice. Christina Saffran Ashford stops the show with "Supper Time," the steamy, bitter torch number that made Ethel Waters a star.

*

'The Melody Lingers On'

Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays

Ends: July 10

Price: $35 to $50

Contact: (818) 508-4200, www.elportaltheatre.com

Running time: 2 hours

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