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Review: ‘Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody. A Tribute in Song’ at The In Series

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How fortunate we are to have the In Series the past 2+ decades presenting a smart set mix of:

innovative Pocket Opera, intimate Cabaret, and intriguing Latino programming.  [from the company’s mission].

Under Founder and Artistic Director Carla Hubner’s leadership the In Series is once again presenting a fine musical production. This time it is an original, absorbing, spirited excursion with Irving Berlin and his particular sense of 20th Century America, called Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody. A Tribute in Song. 

Garrett Matthews, Jaely Chamberlain Turner, Krislynn Perry, CJ David, and Jarrod Lee. Photo by Johannes Markus.

With their excellent performed solos, duets, and as a company, the show is a marvelous showcase for six talented performers: Jaely Chamberlin, Cornelius David (CJ), Jarrod Lee, Garrett Matthews, Elizabeth Mondragon, and Krislynn T. Perry. Each has great chops and several have major operatic training and experiences.

For those less familiar with the works of the last century’s once ubiquitous Irving Berlin, the In Series has prepared well-researched and keenly written program notes to go along with the production’s book by veteran writer Bari Biern. Together they give abundant life to Berlin’s 60-year musical career.

Berlin (1888 –1989) wrote well over a 1,000 songs including those for about 3 dozen Broadway shows and Hollywood movies. This is not bad for a Jewish immigrant kid who came to America when he was about 5 to leave the pogroms of the Old world behind and seize the energy of his new homeland.

For For Irving Berlin: Simple Melody, Director Abel Lopez and Music Director Reenie Codelka cast a talented, diverse, mostly Millennial ensemble of six who engaged me on a multi-decade journey from about 1907 to 1954. Those were some hard years for America. Years that Berlin try to provide a positive spin and spirit whenever he could. The show is a nicely-connected cabaret of about three dozen of Berlin’s Broadway and Hollywood show tunes and classics.

In a comfortable retro-look setting by Jonathan D. Robertson, with lighting design by Alex Keen, and Robert Croghan’s period costumes), inside DC’s intimate Source Theatre, we get to enjoy excellently sung snippets and sometimes much more of Berlin’s great hits. I expect that, like me, a Baby Boomer audience and older will easily recall many of the show’s tunes. And as played by Reenie Codelka, musical numbers are recognizable from the first notes she plays.

Tammy Roberts’ choreography keeps the show well-paced. Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody. A Tribute in Song is held together with this conceit: Berlin has just passed away and his daughter (Elizabeth Mondragon) returns home to reminisce.

Musical number highlights I really enjoyed were: “This is the Army Mr. Jones” (1942) and “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”(1918) performed by Chamberlin, Mondragon, and Perry. Having served in the military it was nice to be reminded how bright and chipper these numbers are compared to the music that comes to my mind from the Vietnam War, or what those who now serve must have coming into their heads.

“How Deep is the Ocean” (1932). My God, what deep resonance Lee provides to this anthem about love. Very stylish.

Jarrod Lee, CJ David, Jaely Chamberlain Turner, and Krislynn Perry. Photo by Johannes Markus.

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1929). Just a spiffy, cute rendition from CJ and Lee.

“Supper Time” (1933). Oh my, this was a showstopper that deeply penetrated into my soul.  It was full of passion and sorrowful heat from Perry singing about the aftermath of her African-American husband’s lynching.  (This was before Billie Holiday made “Strange Fruit” an anthem against racism.)

“Anything You Can Do” (1946). Jeez-just adorable rich fun as sung by Lee and Perry.

“They Say it’s Wonderful” (1946). Who can’t be sucked in to the full Company’s harmonic, crooner style?

“There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1946). The full company does well with a strong snippet that does not try to imitate or outdo Ethel Merman (as if anyone ever could!).

There are also “Everybody’s Doin’ It” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911) to present Berlin’s career starting point. These show how Berlin, as did so many others-appropriated the music from the likes of Scott Joplin.

And finally, there was the fiercely patriotic “God Bless America” (1938). I willingly succumbed to the song’s uncomplicated, un-cynical, flag-waving lyrics with their straight ahead love for America. These are timeless lyrics that reach out still to the heart of so many Americans. And I appreciated that the cast made the iconic patriotic song their own.

So, Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody. A Tribute in Song should find a large audience in the mood for a cabaret-style musical that is light-on-its-feet. For Baby Boomers and musical theater geeks, the show will easily resonate. And it is hopefully a great way to introduce the millennials and those unfamiliar with one of the great composers of the American Songbook.

I am grateful that In Series took a chance and assembled and produced Irving Berlin: A Simple Melody. A Tribute in Song. It is a fine example of the importance of not forgetting the cultural norms and values of America’s past -in our rush to the digital future.    

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

Irving Berlin A Simple Melody plays through January 28, 2017, at the In Series performing at Source – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7763, or purchase them online.

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