‘Piano’: One terrific moment after another

Patricia Harrelson /

Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant, channeled a passion for the United States into sunny morale-building tunes that have become threaded into our holidays, pastimes and national identity.A musical revue of Berlin's work, conceived by Ray Broderick and Michael Berkeley, illustrates just how deeply Berlin's work permeates our culture.

The revue, "I Love a Piano," plays through Oct. 7 at the Fallon House Theater in Columbia.

The Sierra Repertory Theatre production whips through 70 years, showcasing nearly 60 of Berlin's 1,500 songs, sung by a sextet of talented musical performers including Jake Delaney, Daniel Hines, Jennylind Parris, Jessica Reiner-Harris, Michael Vodde and Brenna Wahl.

Director-choreographer Russell Garrett has tailored the production to showcase their range of talent and has fit some exquisite choreography into a snug venue. This show is all about the music and the performers.

Rather than creating a narrative line, Broderick and Berkeley crafted the production as a series of thin sketches that tie together a broad selection of Berlin's songs. The songs segueing seamlessly, avoiding one of the major pitfalls of musical revues - too much exposition forced into dialogue.

The actors have character names but they are practically inconsequential as the focus is on the tunes, deposited as they are into sketches that are organized as an historical romp across the first half of the last century.

An upright piano with a broken key becomes a seventh character in the performance and creates a unifying symbol - a truly "fine way to treat a Steinway" as the actors sing late in the show.

The piano in the Fallon House production may or may not be a Steinway, but it is beautiful specimen that the actors push to and fro, traipsing across the decades from Ragtime to Tin Pan Alley, the Roaring '20s and the Depression and on into World War II and out the other side.

So many familiar tunes ring forth that it's tempting to sing along: "Blue Skies," "Putting on the Ritz," "How Deep is the Ocean." Even if you can't avoid humming or tapping your foot, your sound will disappear behind that of the able vocalists on stage who are electrifying the playlist, accentuating the wit, poignancy and heart in the lyrics with their own personalities.

From the get-go, the actors infuse the stage with infectious cheer, belting out "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," then building the playful atmosphere with song until the theater is feverish with "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

When the performers dance the Charleston and the Mandy, they never stop singing, a feat that attests to their musical theater expertise.

The mood dips a bit into the mournful note in "Russian Lullaby." But the dip only lasts a minute before the upbeat sounds again with "Three Cheers, Instead of Two." The mood keeps soaring right into a fabulous melange of songs, including "Change Partners" and "Cheek to Cheek," performed with fancy dance moves by all six actors.

Act I ends with a World War II medley including three of Berlin's most iconic numbers. "White Christmas" never fails to elicit a shiver. This favorite is followed by Michael Vodde singing the deliriously soothing "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)." Then Jennylind Parris belts out "God Bless America" before a projection of a huge American flag.

As people filled the aisles on Saturday night at intermission, more than one person marveled, "I didn't realize he wrote that one too!"

Act I reminds the audience of Berlin's brilliant distillation of popular sentiment. Infused with the dazzling artistry of pianist Nolon Bonvouloir, who is also the musical director, the audience also succumbs to the sentiment in the production's title, "I Love a Piano."

Bonvouloir's accompaniment, along with Josh Certo on percussion and Dennis Dragan on bass, steeps the show in authenticity. It's actually hard to believe that the actors who rotate sitting before the piano at center stage piano aren't actually making the ivories sing.

By Act 2, the audience is eager for more Berlin, more piano, and more song. The next act roars to life with even more verve than the first. Every song and every singer seems like the best yet, which is especially ironic in the skit about three actresses auditioning for the lead in "Annie Get Your Gun," with its saucy rendition of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better."

The truth is these performers meld fantastically, feeding off one another to produce one terrific musical moment after another.

Jake Delaney and Brenna Wahl give an athletic polish to "Let's Go Slumming," filling it with comedic antics. And there is a jawdropping, inspired double duet by Daniel Hines and Jessica Reiner-Harris and Michael Vodde and Jennylind Parris.

The cast sings and dances across a spare set designed by Randall A. Enlow with a bigger-than-life piano keyboard encircling the proscenium arch. An incredible array of splendid costumes by Jose M. Rivera assists in revealing the arc of American history covered by Berlin's music. Historical relevance is also conveyed by timely images projected on a screen at the back of the set.

Music and song are romantic arts that connect us to something more fundamental than our minds. Our souls, perhaps. Irving Berlin's music reveals a way in which Americans love to be - happy, sentimental, patriotic, and silly. In so doing, "I Love a Piano" touches a place in all of us.

For reservations, call 532-3120.

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