Anyone who has ever worked in children’s theater knows all too well that young people are the most honest – and sometimes the most brutal – audience an actor has ever faced. I kept that in mind at the opening night of Tibbits Summer Theatre’s production of “On Broadway Too: An Irving Berlin Songbook” as a bubbly 6-year-old girl arrived with her mother and grandmother and sat two seats away. Was I in for the experience from hell, I wondered? After all, how attention grabbing can a musical revue of tunes by one of America’s greatest (and long-dead) songwriters be for one so young – especially when the world she lives in is filled with popular music Berlin wouldn’t recognize? Or likely care for?
To be honest, I figured young Marissa would last about 15 minutes, and then either get cranky or fall asleep. (I prayed for the latter.) So imagine my surprise when she immediately started swaying to the beat – and then jumping to her feet to dance along with the cast. Yes, Marissa knows a good show when she sees one, and for the next 100 minutes, she sat transfixed by the world unfolding before her. And so too did many of us older folk who often hummed along and tapped our toes to many of the tunes that defined America throughout the 20th century.
Devised and compiled by Trinity Bird and Charles Burr, “On Broadway Too” is a follow-up to last season’s successful trek through the modern songbook. In this case, however, it’s a quick romp through approximately four-dozen of Berlin’s estimated 1,500 tunes, some of which you’ll recognize the instant you hear the first few notes. Others, though, may be familiar only to die-hard Berlin aficionados. But nonetheless, the selection offers a broad representation of Berlin’s six decades as a songwriter. Upon his death in 1989 at the age of 101, The New York Times wrote, “Irving Berlin set the tone and the tempo for the tunes America played and sang and danced to for much of the 20th century.” And that’s true. From Tin Pan Alley to the movies, with stops along the way on Broadway, Berlin’s work sparked an international dance craze, built patriotism among the citizenry of two world wars, and delivered a classic holiday tune that became one of the most recorded songs in history. All told, it’s a marvelous catalogue of work that even a modern-day 6-year-old can appreciate – and in the hands of director Bird, the fun begins with the opening note and ends at the curtain call.
Trimming approximately 50 songs to fit a 100-minute revue (including a 12-minute intermission) is not an easy feat, but one Bird and Burr accomplished quite well. Each clip tells a short story, which seamlessly morphs into the next, creating a thematic flow without interruption. And delivering those gorgeous melodies are six young and talented performers who make their hard work look rather effortless.
Evident throughout the performance are the cast’s uniformly strong voices and movement skills. Whether together or as duos, trios or solos, Dick Baker, Amy Lamberti, Ryan McDonald, Katie Quigley, Lindsey Spencer and Ricky Wenthen approach the numbers with high energy that never falters, and each brings to the show a unique trait that endears him or her to the audience.
Lamberti’s sweet, delicate voice is perfect for “You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake On Tea” and “All Alone.” McDonald has a confident swagger first seen in the show’s opening number (“I Love A Piano”) that continues to serve him well into the show in “Anything You Can Do” with Spencer. (It was one of the audience favorites on opening night.) The two also shine in the equally popular “I Want To Go Back To Michigan (Down On The Farm).”
Quigley sizzles in “Say It Isn’t So” and gives off plenty of heat in both “Heat Wave” and “Change Partners” with Lamberti and Spencer. (In fact, the three women are delightful in every number they perform together.)
Wenthen, a musical theater student at SUNY Cortland, makes his Tibbits debut in “On Broadway,” and I suspect the handsome performer has a long and productive career ahead of him. Of all the cast members, he seems most comfortable with Annali Fuchs’ choreography, and he slickly delivers it with an ease and confidence not often seen by performers his age. His solos, “Easter Parade” and “I Used To Be Colorblind,” are fine examples of this young man’s talent.
The show’s standout, however, is Baker. Armed with a degree in theater and working in regional theaters around the country, the lanky actor exudes personality. Whether soloing in the excellent “Let’s Have Another Cup O’ Coffee” or with other performers in numbers such as “Everybody Step,” Baker uses his entire body and face to passionately tell each song’s story. He’s fascinating to watch from beginning to end.
Most noteworthy, though, is this: None of the performers wear microphones. Tibbits Opera House, built in 1882, was once named one of the “10 great places to see the lights way off Broadway” by USA Today. Because of its excellent acoustics, every word can be heard, and you can tell which performers are singing and which aren’t – which often isn’t the case in today’s growing overreliance on electronics. Plus, voices don’t fade in and out thanks to dying batteries and technical snafus.
Music director and pianist Kristen Lee Rosenfeld serves the score well, as do her two fellow accompanists. A few numbers, though, cry out for more depth than two pianos and a percussionist can provide.
All of the shows technical elements are fine and add to the show’s overall class and atmosphere.
If young theater goer Marissa had a complaint about “On Broadway Too,” it was this: There weren’t enough tap numbers. Well, everyone is a critic. But I suspect Tibbits’ energetic and personality-filled performers have created within her a love of theater that will last a lifetime. And that’s the best outcome this cranky critic can think of!
‘On Broadway Too: An Irving Berlin Songbook’
Tibbits Summer Theatre, 14 S. Hanchett St., Coldwater. Thursday-Saturday through July 2. $24-$26. 517-278-6029. http://www.tibbits.org