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THEATER REVIEW

The bounty of Berlin

The Musical Theatre West revue `I Love a Piano' traverses seven decades and more than 60 Irving Berlin songs.

April 26, 2006|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

When asked where Irving Berlin ranked in American music, fellow giant Jerome Kern famously said, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music." The enduring truth of Kern's assessment underpins the showbiz panache of "I Love a Piano," presented by Musical Theatre West. This delightful West Coast premiere of Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley's salute to America's greatest tunesmith is as invigorating a song-catalog revue as any since "Ain't Misbehavin'."

A regional success, "I Love a Piano" refreshes its oft-abused genre. Instead of random numbers or chronicling Berlin's career, Roderick (who directs and choreographs the show) and Berkeley focus on the title instrument. Its passage across 70 years of national identity forms an overview through which 64 Berlin songs supply narrative. It proves a masterstroke.

A brief overture from musical director John Glaudini and his superb orchestra accompanies three moving men, who deposit the piano. The six prototypal characters launch a present-day prologue that seamlessly segues to Alexander's Music Shop in the early 1900s. From here, "Piano" takes flight and rarely comes down thereafter. This stems from Berlin's matchless output and the six sublime performers who send the surefire material straight to our solar plexus.

Although Dan Pacheco could use seasoning, his boyish bravado suits juvenile Jim, and Jill Townsend is exemplary as ingenue Eileen. Stephen Breithaupt's animated Alex meets his match in the marvelous Julie Dixon Jackson, who as Sadie invisibly flips from screwball to soulful. As George, Kevin Earley has never been better, and Kathi Gillmore, her mercurial Ginger both droll and vulnerable, is a discovery.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
'I Love a Piano': A review of the Carpenter Performing Arts Center's "I Love a Piano" in Wednesday's Calendar section omitted a performance time. The musical plays at 7 p.m. on Sundays as well as 2 p.m.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 28, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
"I Love a Piano": In the review of "I Love a Piano" in Wednesday's Calendar, one of the references to the play's co-writer, Michael Berkeley, misspelled his last name as Blakeley.

Roderick's inventive staging trumps theme-park contours with style and heart. Designs are plush, especially Todd K. Proto's kaleidoscopic costumes and Debra Garcia Lockwood's lighting, and there are too many witty moments to recount beyond three examples.

The first is the Act 1 ending, after draft letters intrude on a dancing medley and move us into Berlin's World War II output. This builds to a touching "White Christmas," then "God Bless America," as Pacheco and Townsend simulate the famous Life cover embrace to heart-stopping effect.

The second is the hysterical backstage sequence in Act 2. This peaks with Breithaupt and Jackson belting out "You're Just in Love," Earley and Gillmore tearing into "An Old Fashioned Wedding" and then both songs at once, which rocks the house. Finally, there is the finale, everyone in modern cocktail garb and the title song bringing it home. I knew 15 minutes in that I was thoroughly enjoying "I Love a Piano" -- by the ending, I was in love. Blame it on Berlin, and Roderick and Blakeley, and everyone else connected with this enchanting entertainment.

*

'I Love a Piano'

Where: Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach

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

Ends: May 7

Price: $25 to $50

Contact: (562) 856-1999, Ext. 4, or www.musical.org

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

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