Capital Fringe Review: ‘Arlen & Berlin Occupy the Fringe!” by Jennifer Georgia

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Arlen & Berlin Occupy the Fringe! tries to gain Fringe-worthy edginess for its loving review of classic songs from the 30s and 40s by setting it in Freedom Plaza and linking it to the Occupy D.C. movement. It tries very hard, with mixed results. The idea looks promising at the start, when Marshall Keys fills the Source Theater with his soulful sax rendition of Arlen’s “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and two actors present a shadowy tableau of shanty-town denizens in the Great Depression. Then the lights brighten, the five vocalists enter, and Bari Biern’s dialogue introduces them with (literally) one-word self-descriptions, like “lonely” and “fired!” They then launch into a chipper rendition of Berlin’s “Slumming on Park Avenue.”

The diverse singers are quite capable – especially when they finally break in to harmony a few times at the end – and each has a number or two that demonstrate what the show could be. Lewis Freeman’s background in classical music seems somewhat at odds with this style of music, but his “How Deep Is The Ocean” (Berlin) is more natural and unaffected. Gregory Stuart’s voice, too, channels operetta, but he creates an amusing character of a gay coffee barista, and gamely performs every move the chorographer (Angelisa Gillyard) can throw at him. If only he could relax!  Even doing pelvic thrusts to update Berlin’s “Heat Wave,” he needs, surprisingly, to loosen up.  Tammy Roberts has a big, brassy voice more in tune with the material, but there is an almost over-eager, rehearsed quality to many of her gestures. She finally lets rip in a jazzy rendition of Arlen’s classic “Get Happy” in the finale.

Two cast members stand out. Leslie Vincent’s musical theater training comes through in her numbers; her “I Wonder What Became of Me” (with gorgeous piano solo by Musical Director Stanley Thurston) adds much needed emotional depth to the show. Her affecting “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” (Berlin) also shows what effective use Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows makes of the Source’s assets, surrounding Vincent’s red and black costume (by Donna Breslin) with arcs of red, and then ending the number with the cast in striking silhouette against red scrims.  But it is Pam Ward, with her gospel background, who really shows what is possible with this repertoire. All of her numbers, Berlin’s “I Got the Sun in the Morning” and “Harlem on my Mind” and Arlen’s “Stormy Weather” and iconic “Over the Rainbow” – especially when studded with Marshall’s rich saxophone solos – are natural, rich, and affecting.

It would be marvelous if the show could live up to its original premise, but it is almost free of irony, history or nuance. The closest it comes to updating the material is Stuart’s amusing take on the idea of “Uncle Sam Wants You” in the post-don’t-ask-don’t-tell era. The show has “Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” but it doesn’t exercise that right. If the writer and director (Abel Lopez) could provide more of these characters’ emotional journeys in Freedom Plaza on their way to singing “God Bless America,” this revue could be genuinely moving and relevant.  As it is, it is earnest, cheerful and well done, and that’s enough to make it worth a look.

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Jennifer Georgia
Over the past four decades, Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters and programs and generally theatrically meddled in Maryland, Princeton, London, and Switzerland. She has made a specialty of playing old bats – no, make that “mature, empowered women” – including Mama Rose in Gypsy, the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow-actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd – when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.” Her most recent indomitable female was in a student-directed film where she played the monster Grendel’s Mother – a role last embodied on film by Angelina Jolie in a CGI coat of gold paint; Jennifer took it in a rather different direction. (She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; actually she is quite easy-going. Really). She has also directed shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies, and most recently Woody Allen’s Mr. Big in the MP One Acts Festival. She is also the Publicity and Promotions Director for Montgomery Playhouse. In real life she is a speechwriter and editor.