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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