As the story goes, legendary Broadway composer Jerome Kern (“Show Boat”) once said that Irving Berlin had no place in American music, he is American music.
And “I Love a Piano,” which opens Saturday at Crown Uptown Theatre, seeks to prove exactly that through a musical revue of 64 Berlin songs that reflected and shaped America from ragtime to the jazz era, through the Depression and World War II to the optimistic promise of the 1950s.
Conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley, the 2006 revue is told through historical vignettes centering on the same sturdy upright piano built in 1910 as it passes through the lives of seven generations. The stories are told through song and dance by the same six players – three couples – who assume various characters as needed to show a growing and changing America. Among touchstones are such standards as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “God Bless America,” “White Christmas” and, of course, “I Love a Piano.”
Bringing the songs to life are Brittney Morton and Ben Cramer as Ginger and George, Emily Pirtle and Ryan Ehresman as Sadie and Alex, and Janet Wiggins and Austin Stang as Eileen and Jim.
Matthew Rumsey is directing with music director Jesse Warkentin leading a three-piece combo. Set is by Robert Morris, sound by Daniel Prator, period costumes by Dora Arbuckle and props by Stephanie Dennis.
The considerable choreography – including swing, jazz, tap and Broadway – is by Maurice Sims, a Wichita State University theater grad who is taking a short break from his choreography position with the international tour of “The Aluminum Show,” which is sort of a cross between “Blue Man Group” and “Stomp.”
“This musical revue will be a first for Crown Uptown since new owners took over three years ago,” says director Rumsey, who is also producing artistic director for the theater. “Karen Morris (widow of Crown founder Ted J. Morris) told us they used to do revues all the time and mentioned how successful they were. We wanted to see how our audience would react to bringing one back.”
“I Love a Piano” will be the first of two this year. “Some Enchanted Evening,” showcasing the beloved music of Rodgers & Hammerstein, will be in mid-August.
“One of the great things for me as director is that this revue allows me and Maurice (choreographer Sims) to play around and explore our direction a bit more than most shows,” Rumsey says. “There are so many dance numbers that we can be all over the place from swing to tap to waltz. We can give it more of our creative spin.”
Brittney Morton sees her wisecracking character Ginger as a cross between Ginger Rogers and June Allyson while her partner Ben Cramer sees George as sort of the leading man type who would play Frank Butler in Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun.”
“Ginger doesn’t take herself too seriously. She has a real sense of humor. But she also has a warm side,” says Morton, a Buffalo, N.Y., native seen here in “Little Women” and “White Christmas.” Morton is taking the lead in half a dozen songs, including “Let Yourself Go,” “God Bless America” and “Say It Isn’t So” (her personal favorite).
“The show is more than just the characters. I think it shows a great composer and how his career affected America from Tin Pan Alley to the Depression to ‘Stage Door Canteen.’ It’s very patriotic. And it’s great to be able to sing classic songs like that,” Morton says.
Her partner, Cramer (“Godspell,” “White Christmas”), is a Philadelphia-based actor who will croon “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “Isn’t It a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain” and “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil” – a jazzy tune from 1922 he’d never heard before but said he is enjoying immensely.
“George is a leading man type, but since he’s paired with Ginger, there’s definitely a lot of Fred Astaire in him. He tries to be suave and worldly, but isn’t always successful. I can identify with that personally,” Cramer says with a chuckle. “I like the show because, with 64 songs, it’s nonstop and high-energy.”
Emily Pirtle (“Hairspray,” “White Christmas”) as the sophisticated Sadie and Ryan Ehrsman (“Godspell,” “Hairspray”) as the authoritative Alex – both from Wichita – are the mature couple of the group.
“Sadie is smart and savvy with a sense of sophistication as well as humor. She is sexy on her own terms – and maybe just a bit clumsy. I think of her like Eve Arden or Martha Raye,” says Pirtle, who also turns dramatic with the Depression-era “Russian Lullaby” about bread lines and the heartbreaking war widow ballad “Suppertime.” Her favorite is joining with the other women for the tight three-part Andrews Sisters’ harmony of “Any Bonds Today.”
“Alex is a bit of a change for me. He’s the authority figure, from a general to a boss to a casting director,” says Ehresman, who just finished playing John/Judas as Jesus’ flamboyant best buddy in “Godspell.” “What I really like about the show is that we do 60-some songs mashed up in really cool ways with clever arrangements. At one point, four of us are singing completely different songs but they all go together beautifully.” His favorite is the three-part harmony “Lazy” with the other guys.
Playing the youngest, most energetic and most dance-happy couple are Janet Wiggins as Eileen and Austin Stang as Jim. The two were recently paired as the rambunctious Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer in “Cats,” and were distinguished by their gymnastic dancing. They plan to do much the same for “I Love a Piano.”
“Eileen is sort of a young Judy Garland, although she dances more like Ginger Rogers. She’s spunky and energetic, but naive. She falls for any man’s line,” says Wiggins, a Wichitan who solos on “What’ll I Do?” and “I Got Lost in His Arms.”
“My favorite is the duet with Austin for ‘We’re a Couple of Swells,’ which Judy and Fred Astaire did for ‘Easter Parade’ dressed as hobos. That’s a lot of fun,” Wiggins says.
Adds her partner Stang: “Jim is a dancing guy sort of like Gene Kelly. He’s also the one who owns the piano (at the center of show), from being a mover who pushes it on stage to trying to sell it during the Depression.” Stang, a Kansas City native now based in Wichita, steps up with “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” He also gets reflective with “Count Your Blessings.”
“When I was a kid, I loved history, so this show refreshes everything that I learned about America. The music is a reflection of each era and how it sustained each generation,” Stang says. “It’s really cool how it shows America’s progress.”