By Jan Sjostrom
They really ought to have a starting gun to fire off I Love a Piano. The song-and-dance tribute to Irving Berlin that opens the season at the at The Wick Theatre in Boca Raton races through about 60 tunes dating from 1910, when Berlin’s career took off, to the 1950s, when his shows were playing on Broadway.
The production is one of the finest of several that have played in in South Florida over the years. That’s thanks to energetic and nuanced performances, eye-catching costumes—what else would you expect from a theater allied with a theatrical costume museum—a crack band, imaginative arrangements, Michael Ursua’s insightful musical direction and D.J. Sailsbury’s spot-on stage direction and choreography.
Because of a peculiar condition in the performance rights agreement, the show, which was conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, never mentions Berlin’s name. Regardless, it’s a love fest to the Russian emigree, who never learned to read or write music, despite composing 1,500 songs.
The conceit that ties the show together is an upright piano that travels from era to era reflecting the changes in American society through Berlin’s songs. The instrument progresses through the proper 1910s, bootlegging 1920s, Depression-era 1930s, war-time 1940s and post-war 1950s. It’s a tribute to the composer-lyricist’s virtuosity, and Berkeley’s varied arrangements, that the songs match the eras yet resonate today.
Galloping through an array of moods the show samples obscure tunes as well as old favorites, including White Christmas, God Bless America, Cheek to Cheek, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Always and There’s No Business Like Show Business.
The cast, consisting of Aaron Bower, Christina Carlucci, Alex Jorth, Tari Kelly, James Patterson and Ryan Matthew Petty, is thoroughly at home with the material. All are strong vocalists, capable of moving seamlessly from dramatic to comic portrayals and nimble dancers. Each has stand-out moments, beyond the lively dance ensembles and full-cast songs enriched with lush harmonies.
Bower claims hearts with her sad rendition of Say It Isn’t So, while propping up an exhausted Jorth during a 1940s dance marathon. Carlucci refreshes ensemble tunes with a clarion high soprano and gently portrays a young woman missing her soldier-beau in What’ll I Do? Kelly excels as a grieving war widow in Suppertime.
Jorth movingly sets in motion the men’s farewell to their partners at the outbreak of World War II with How Deep Is the Ocean? and displays his comic chops as an overweening leading man in a 1950s community theater production. Patterson’s full-bodied voice confidently carries all his numbers. But watch for his sly portrayals of an out-of-work post-war general and community theater director on the edge of a nervous breakdown
Petty brings a pure high tenor to ensemble songs and slips readily from an ironic spin on Blue Skies in the Depression-era sequence to a rebellious soldier in Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.
Michael Anania’s two-level set devotes most of its space to a dance floor. Scene-setting is done by Kacey D. Kopfoff’s apt projections taking up the entire back of the stage. Katie Whittemore’s lighting design unobtrusively establishes the show’s shifting moods.
If you don’t love I Love a Piano, chances are you aren’t a fan of some of the best of the American songbook.
I Love a Piano runs through Nov. 12 at the Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Performances are held at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. on Sunday and Wednesday, and 7:30 p.m. on Friday. The show runs two hours and has one 15-minute intermission. Tickets range from $79 to $109 and are available at thewick.org or by calling the box office at (561) 995-2333.